When deciding to adapt Prime Suspect from the many British miniseries and TV movies, NBC had the unenviable task of turning an incredibly well received, decades old program into a weekly series – and sell it to an American audience. Daunting though it seemed, after the premiere episode, the peacock network looks to have pulled off something rather remarkable.
Well liked by many an audience stateside, Prime Suspect was never a crossover hit, so any adaptation would likely suffer little scrutiny from the average American viewer, and might actually garner some interest from those familiar with the long-running BBC program. At first glance, the two share some resemblances, but all in all, this new version is thankfully not a simple carbon copy of its predecessor, but rather a unique program that salutes the greatness from which it was spawned.
Like the original, starring Helen Mirren as DCI Jane Tennison, NBC’s Prime Suspect succeeds largely on the strength of its leading lady. Here, the performance from Maria Bello is so strong the show feels anchored from the get go.
Bello is Detective Jane Timoney, a competent and devoted homicide detective who, in addition to investigating heinous crimes in New York City, must navigate her way through an incredibly male-dominated environment where she not only faces the doubt of her peers, but also their utter contempt for her invading, as one puts it: his 'home.’
Timoney is passed over for top cases, sent to handle menial tasks, and although her colleagues are told by their lieutenant (Aidan Quinn) that she is actually a good detective, it does little to quell the rumors that her somewhat checkered past included sleeping her way into a job on their squad.
The squad in question is a tight-knit group of detectives played most notably by Kirk Acevedo (Fringe) as Det. Luisito Calderon and Bryan F. O’Byrne as Det. Reg Duffy. The latter having the most vitriol toward Timoney, after a high-profile case is handed to her in the wake of a fellow detective’s untimely passing.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Timoney is faced with the overprotective (vindictive) ex wife of her boyfriend Matt Webb, (played in the pilot by Toby Stephens, but later in subsequent episodes by The Shield and Sons of Anarchy actor Kenny Johnson) who uses the dangers of Timoney’s occupation – among other things – as a reason to keep her son away from his father.
To her credit, though, Timoney remains strong. She is intent on asserting her right to be in the precinct by being a good detective – and proving herself by exonerating an innocent man, and moving a case closer to completion than any of her male counterparts had.
This is Prime Suspect’s strongest point. The program has you rooting for Timoney immediately. The audience feels compelled to cheer as she slowly makes headway amongst some that doubted her, and smile when she refuses to trade a reluctant compliment for absolution from the verbal and emotional abuse she has endured at the hands of those who should be her closest allies.
As mentioned before, Prime Suspect rides high on Bello’s performance. The actress plays Timoney funny, smart and wickedly tenacious. Overall, though, she’s just tough. But Bello knows when to dial back all other aspects of her character, and show some real vulnerability. It is that scene in which she pleads for the man in her life to show her some comfort that the audience sees what a complete package Bello has made of Jane Timoney.
The pilot, directed by Peter Berg (Battleship, Hancock) and written by showrunner Alexandra Cunningham (Desperate Housewives) leaves little to complain about. Though it’s clear that the treatment Timoney receives from her peers is intended to illustrate the dominance of the male ego in the workplace – especially one so predominantly male as law enforcement – it does teeter on the verge of ridiculousness at times. Still, the strength of the writing in the pilot suggests that any changes, which might need to be made, can be dealt with swiftly, and without watering down the impact of the show’s more dramatic elements.
Of course, it’s those dramatic elements that make Prime Suspect really shine. The balance Cunningham and her crew have struck between the heaver character moments, and the necessity of furthering the plot, distinguishes this program from all other cop dramas on television right now. Each development, as Jane Timoney navigates her way from beleaguered cop, to girlfriend under fire, to concerned daughter, feels organic but brisk – the script never lingers in one place too long – unless it’s a wickedly sweet moment when Jane is finally able to put the screws to someone who has yet to learn she’s a woman not to be trifled with. That scene deserves a double dose.
If nothing else, Prime Suspect should serve as a welcome respite from all of the repetitive procedural cop shows on television today. As this adaptation proves, there is something to be learned from watching great television. Hopefully, more creators tune in and learn from this one.
Prime Suspect airs Thursday nights @10pm on NBC.