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Critic's Notebook: Take the cuffs off 'Prime Suspect'

NBC shelved the show even though it had a great cast headed by an actress capable of creating her own iconic character, given half a chance.

November 24, 2011|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
  • Maria Bello stars in "Prime Suspect."
Maria Bello stars in "Prime Suspect." (Virginia Sherwood / NBC )

"Cougar Town" creator Bill Lawrence recently bemoaned in the pages of Entertainment Weekly that his show, now in its third season, had been benched at least until mid-season. Among other things, he blamed the show's unfortunate name and original concept in its struggle to maintain ratings.

A similar argument could be made for newcomer "Prime Suspect," which, though not officially canceled, recently was booted from Thursday nights on NBC's midseason schedule. It's being replaced by "The Firm," which is based on the John Grisham novel.

"Prime Suspect" is a fine and feisty detective procedural, which steadily improved with each episode this fall. It stars Maria Bello and a host of other terrific actors all doing great work solving crimes and overcoming personal tensions within their ranks. The only things keeping it from being a solid success are its title and original concept — an American remake of an iconic British show.

Right off the bat, the audience was both limited and wary — although the British "Prime Suspect" is the stuff of legend, it aired here on "Masterpiece," which meant American fans were, well, PBS viewers. That's usually not the first demographic network executives try to court in prime time. Meanwhile, the NBC show automatically pitted Maria Bello against not just Helen Mirren but the iconic, idealized version of Helen Mirren. Also, not good.

More than that, as I noted in my review, the original was very much a show of its place and time. It dealt with the struggles of the only female detective chief inspector in Scotland Yard at a time (the early '90s) when this was an urgent, pressing issue. But in the past decade or so, in addition to a heightened awareness of the evils of sexual harassment, there has also been a host of female-led crime dramas including TNT's "The Closer" and "Saving Grace."

So, in an attempt to re-create the original's sexist tension, the new "Prime Suspect" led with a back story that had Bello's character, Det. Jane Timoney, transferred after having an affair with a senior officer. This narrative, while interesting, played precisely as what it was — a very distracting way for the writers to generate hostility toward Timoney because she was a woman.

And it simply wasn't necessary. Bello's Timoney is rude, abrupt and arrogant enough to have stirred up hostility without the ham-fisted anti-female sentiment. And that's the problem: The real sexism at work here is not keeping a cop from doing her job, it's strangling the roots of good storytelling.

Women still need an extra special reason to be the lead in a network police drama, and the easiest conceit is to create a character who must prove herself better than her male counterparts. Being a woman still has to be part of the story in a way being a man does not — or why bother having a woman in the lead? Especially if you're not going to pair her off with a male costar for the roiling passion potential (see please "Castle," "Bones" and "The Mentalist").

Just as Lawrence has said he went with the Courteney-Cox-as-cougar concept because it allowed him to sell his show, the packaging of Bello as an American Mirren gave "Prime Suspect" a reason to be. Which is sad and infuriating in and of itself.

One can easily think of countless other twists, including better use of the affair back-story, to give Timoney a chance to establish herself in the ranks of complicated heroes. This could have been done, too, without putting the American Timoney in the position of having to shadow a show that worked so splendidly in a different format (drama rather than procedural), nation and time period.

To add insult to injury, the whole "Prime Suspect" angle appears to have backfired anyway. Critics and the entertainment media may consider the original one of the Best Shows Ever, but its audience was never large enough to sustain a network show. A remake certainly never guaranteed that original audience.

NBC would have done better to rely on what it had — a great cast headed by an actress more than capable of creating her own iconic character, given half a chance. And if NBC wants to continue tempting performers as talented as Bello, they might consider upping it to a full chance, and a full season.

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