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Tough, like Jane

Lynda La Plante's 'Prime Suspect' cop raised the bar for women.

September 20, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

When Lynda La Plante, a mother of the female-led cop drama, looks among this year's Emmy nominees, it's almost as if she were welcoming relatives to a family gathering.

Four of the five lead actresses nominated for their work in a dramatic series owe something to Jane Tennison -- the pioneering TV detective who was the centerpiece of the Liverpool native's award-winning British series "Prime Suspect," which later migrated to the United States and won its share of Emmys here.

There's Grace Hanadarko, the rebellious, world-weary Oklahoma City detective played by Holly Hunter on "Saving Grace"; LAPD Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson, strong and talented, but flawed, played by Kyra Sedgwick on "The Closer"; Olivia Benson, the Special Victims Unit's determined and professional detective played by Mariska Hargitay on "Law & Order: SVU"; and Patty Hewes, the manipulative, high-powered attorney at the top of her own firm played by Glenn Close in "Damages."

Darker than American shows such as "Police Woman" and "Cagney & Lacey," "Prime Suspect," which was created by La Plante and starred Helen Mirren, is considered groundbreaking for placing a tough, mature and flawed woman at the helm of her own unit. Supported by legions of female fans, "Prime Suspect" practically established a new television genre: a dramatic ensemble series built around a complex, single woman trying to make it in a man's world. In the end, Tennison's appeal may have been that she was entirely human, someone who never quite seemed able to reconcile her devotion to work with a personal life.

In this year's Emmy race, La Plante gives the edge to Close because, she says, Close has the same kind of weight that Mirren brought to her role as a commanding detective in the London Metropolitan Police Department. It's an "unusual female quality," said La Plante, speaking from her London offices.

Hunter is a close second choice. "There's something so needy and angry about her," she said. Normally, an officer who messes up as often as Grace would be dismissed, La Plante said.

"Because she created this strong character you kind of ride with her," she added.

On the other hand, she said she could almost hear the discussion around the "Saving Grace" writers' table, starting with: " 'How can we make this different?' Somebody comes up with the idea, 'Why don't we have an angel?' 'Hang on a second, would he have wings?' "

Considering the American rush to remake successful British series, you might think Hollywood producers would be tripping over themselves on the way to her door. In fact, the prolific novelist and screenwriter, now 62, said she's been trying to break into network drama here -- with mixed results.

La Plante served as executive producer and a writer on "The Warden" and "Framed," both for TNT. Meanwhile, she co-produced with ABC her adaptation of "The Widows," a miniseries about three women whose husbands were killed during a theft.

In 1996, NBC produced a two-hour film, "The Prosecutors," co-written with Tom Fontana ("Homicide"). One critic called it "flabby." CBS produced a miniseries based on her book "Bella Mafia," about a female-dominated mob. (One reviewer called it "the worst Mafia drama ever made.")

And last year, NBC made a stab at another female Mafia show, "Mafia Wives," about mob wives who learn the business after discovering what their incarcerated husbands did for a living.

"They thought it was too dark," she said.

Still, she remembers fondly the Hollywood that allowed "Prime Suspect" to wriggle its way into the Emmy competition. It won three Emmy awards for miniseries and two acting Emmys for Mirren. The awards helped give her the confidence to keep writing, said La Plante.

One of the most common mistakes made in creating serious female cop shows on both sides of the Atlantic, she said, is trying to make the lead a blond in her 20s.

"Jane Tennison was already 40. They have to do the time in order to say, 'I have more experience than any of the men on this team. I want this job,' " she said.

Since "Prime Suspect," La Plante has established a virtual industry around strong female characters. She's written books ("The Legacy," "Entwined," "Cold Blood," "Cold Heart," "Sleeping Cruelty," "The Red Dahlia" and "Clean Cut") and screenplays (the popular ITV series "Commander" and "Trial and Retribution," the latter of which will be released this month on DVD in the U.S.) She's also formed her own production and distribution companies.

Currently, she's adapting her novel "Above Suspicion" for a miniseries on British TV in which the lead is . . . a young woman detective in her early 20s. But this one is an overeager novice in a "hot caldron of male testosterone."

When the character suggests the detectives use a hidden camera or microphone to catch a particular suspect, the hardened officers tell her: "You watch too much TV."

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lynn.smith@latimes.com

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