Kirk Acevedo and Maria Bello in "Prime Suspect." (Patrick Harbron / NBC )
Homicide detective Jane Timoney's hair is messy, not tousled, and those bruises on her face are fresh, from a knock-down, drag-out with a perp. She comes by her bloodshot eyes honestly, earned through a mixture of Scotch on the rocks and work-related insomnia.
Timoney, as played by Maria Bello in NBC's upcoming drama "Prime Suspect," is just as raw on the inside. She's blatantly ambitious and opportunistic, scooping up a high-profile case moments after a fellow cop drops dead of a heart attack. And she thumbs her nose at male colleagues so sexist they refer to themselves as the "beef trust."
"She's rude and unpredictable and unapologetic," said executive producer Alexandra Cunningham. "She's the female Sipowicz."
Cunningham doesn't reference "NYPD Blue's" Andy Sipowicz lightly — she was a writer on the seminal series and is a lifelong fan of hard-nosed detectives. She based Timoney not only on the character made famous in the groundbreaking British version of "Prime Suspect," played by Emmy winner Helen Mirren, but also on classic American TV cops, all of them men.
That, in itself, could be considered a risk for a female lead on a network show, even in 2011. Timoney, who'd never be described as warm and fuzzy, "sometimes acts like a jerk," but it's more important for the character to be watchable than likable, Cunningham said.
That envelope-pushing vision seems to have met with the right champion (NBC entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt) at the right time (when the third-ranked network desperately needs a breakout hit).
"Bob has never told us once to pull back on the darkness," Cunningham said. "He's never given us a note that would make us dumb down or soften this character."
While noting that there's pressure on every new show, Greenblatt said it's especially acute for "Prime Suspect," which will begin airing Sept. 22 — in the intensely competitive 10 p.m. Thursday slot that "E.R." once dominated. It'll go head to head with two established hits, ABC's "Private Practice" and CBS' "The Mentalist," fighting for its share of broadcast viewers and big advertiser dollars spent on the night.
Timoney may seem more like a cable TV creation, Greenblatt said, but he likes that she doesn't fit into a traditional female mold, even for a crime fighter.
"I think audiences — not just cable watchers — are excited by characters that are not the usual Hollywood-ized figures," he said. "Jane is a tough woman, she's iconoclastic and heroic. I believe viewers will gravitate toward her despite the fact that she's not all glammed up."
Bello, who's better known for independent films like "A History of Violence" but did an "E.R." stint in the late '90s, said she's thrilled to play a character who's stripped down and no-nonsense.
"Cops with red lips and high heels and perfect hair chasing bad guys is ridiculous to me," Bello said recently during a break in filming the show. "You're never going to see Jane in lip gloss."
Her one accouterment will be her ever-present fedora, which has already proven to be divisive with TV critics. (Prospective viewers who've seen promos and billboards have even weighed in, pro and con, via social media.) Bello insists she'll keep it — it was her idea to start with — saying it feels right as one of Timoney's quirks.
Aidan Quinn, who plays Timoney's boss, said Bello fully inhabits Jane's gritty persona.
"If her character is supposed to be tired, Maria allows herself to look genuinely tired, which is incredibly rare in this business," he said. "And I don't think we've ever waited for her to get finished in hair and makeup — ever. It takes her 15, 20 minutes tops, the same as the guys. That's almost unheard-of in my 30-year career. It's phenomenal that she has that lack of vanity."
The New York-set series pays homage to the British "Prime Suspect," which premiered some 20 years ago, and brings together some of the architects of that show. Writer and creator Lynda La Plante is an executive producer along with Peter Berg ("Friday Night Lights"), and British producer ITV Studios America worked on the U.S. adaptation.
The new "Prime Suspect" culls details of its criminal cases from former New York cops and prosecutors, who work as consultants and writers on the show. It will divide its time between the personal — Timoney's life outside the squad — and the procedural crime-of-the-week. She and the show will have more of a sense of humor than the serious source material, gallows though it may be.
Timoney won't be a chain smoker or a problem drinker, as Mirren was in the original, but happiness or even peace in her love life may elude her in the new iteration.
"There are some things Jane's just not cut out for, and she may have to admit that," Cunningham said. "When she has to make decisions, she always chooses her job. That's what makes her who she is."