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Blimey! Crime pays off!

Television & Radio | TELEVISION REVIEWS

A pair of British series ratchet up suspense with skill and style.

April 16, 2004|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

This weekend brings American viewers two new terrific U.K. imports, crime division: "Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness" on PBS' "Masterpiece Theatre" and "State of Play" on BBC America. Both series sustain an almost unbearable tension: They're like books you can't put down -- although, as they're presented serially, you'll have to.

It may be a case of the grass always being greener on the other side of the Atlantic, but to some of us there is nothing like a British thriller. It probably has something to do with the accents and exotic phrases like "stitched up" and "leg it" and a few we can't print here, and certainly something to do with the cobbled streets and gray light of Albion.

But it is also true that, from Wilkie Collins to Arthur Conan Doyle to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, they invented and perfected the form. (And let us not forget the singular contribution of Jack the Ripper to the modern dark imagination.) To keep the contributions coming, PBS has long catered to the Anglophiles among us, serving up large portions of Holmes, Marple, Morse, Dagliesh, Tennison and other, often melancholy, fighters of crime.

There are many points in common between the series premiering. Each richly employs London locations, venturing into the reaches of the city that Hugh Grant movies never show. Each is scored by the constant ring of the cellphone. Each is fairly but not fatally "stylish" -- the look of "Prime Suspect 6," with its geometrical compositions and sometimes overwrought color design and too frequent use of the wide-angle lens, is almost jarring at first, compared with earlier editions. Yet it is still grounded in a realism that makes even "Law & Order" look like Noh Theater.

In both shows, the plots point toward bad actions in high places. It's in some ways a cliche of fiction that the higher up the ladder you go, the more corrupt, cynical and arrogant are the people you find, but it is a cliche not without merit. (And as such people are so rarely held to account in real life, it's always nice to see them get their comeuppance in the moving pictures.) And despite their heroes' nominal victories, each ends somberly -- the case is closed but the damage is done. Real closure is chimerical .

And most crucially, both benefit from length, which allows for the complexity and the sprawl commonly called "Dickensian" but also allows for silence, the long look, the apparently extraneous conversation that builds texture and reveals character rather than just advancing the plot.

"Prime Suspect 6" takes Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), now a detective superintendent but no more secure in her job than before, into the territory of the movie "Dirty Pretty Things" and the invisible illegal underclass that, there as here, makes life comfortable for the legal overclass -- specifically Balkan immigrants and the unresolved history between Bosnian and Serb.

But neither here, nor in "State of Play," are the characters stand-ins for political points; each represents only her or his particular agglomeration of strengths and weaknesses. Each has his or her own way of getting things completely wrong, and occasionally right.

Created for television by screenwriter-novelist Lynda La Plante, Tennison has no life apart from Mirren: They're inextricable, for all time, like Columbo and Peter Falk. She is is both flawed and superheroic -- indeed, each quality is bound up with the other. She never lets herself -- or anyone else -- off easy, which makes her a difficult colleague-boss-employee-girlfriend. (As regards the last category, she is sexual, rather than sexy, but mostly too exhausted or distracted for sex -- which is sort of sexy.) And though she is sometimes critically wrong, she is right more often than anyone else around her, which doesn't make her any more popular, and does not stop until justice is done -- always at some peril to her safety, domestic tranquillity and career.

Her career will of course last exactly as long as Mirren and Granada Television and the folks at "Masterpiece Theatre" agree it should. Mirren had pronounced herself finished after "PS5," back in 1996 (it showed here the year after), but she is back, and, as ever, embattled.

A continually surprising thriller that maintains an air of imminent danger through its five or so hours (in six episodes), "State of Play" is a grander, more romantic creation. Written by Paul Abbott ("Cracker," "Touching Evil"), it is at once harrowing and funny and involves friendship and betrayal, love and adultery, government conspiracies and personal jealousy and the overlapping business of the police and the press, each of whom has its own view of the proceedings: "It's a case, not a story," cop chastens journalist.

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