America’s take on Lynda La Plante’s Prime Suspect has been sold to more than 30 countries including Australia, Ireland, Germany and France in deals secured by ITV Studios Global Entertainment. Maria Kyriacou, managing director at ITVS GE, called the series “one of the most highly anticipated shows of the US autumn season” and discussions are under way to bring Prime Suspect US to the UK.
But how does the drama compare to Granada’s award-winning progenitor? Is Jane Timoney (as played by former ER actress Maria Bello) any match for Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison?
To her credit, writer Alexandra Cunningham acknowledges that things have changed since 1991. ITV’s Prime Suspect was as much about sexism as crime solving, but 20 years later, it wouldn’t have been realistic to depict a police force mired in institutional misogyny. Officers have recourse to the HR department, for a start. To have lifted Jane Tennison’s struggle wholesale and transplanted it to 21st century New York would have left us with a very outmoded drama.
What Cunningham has done is to depict how sexism has insidiously evolved rather than been eradicated. Timoney has been sidelined by her dunderheaded blokey peers because they believe she’s slept her way into the department. It’s a subtle shift, but one which works well, despite the prejudice being writ a little too large.
As for Maria Bello, well, despite the quirky trilby hat, she’s appropriately rough-edged and can be just as sour as lemon sherbet. But she’s definitely not as world-weary and self-destructive as Mirren’s character. There are no scenes shot through the fug of cigarette smoke (Timoney is dealing with nicotine withdrawal, like Sarah Linden on The Killing) and slugging whiskey shots is seen as the preserve of the guys.
Still, she can deliver the blows and take some as well, with one encounter in the pilot leaving her particularly bloody. She also lobbies brazenly for a job in a similar fashion to Tennison after a fellow cop suffers a heart attack and – as is now mandatory on series such as this – struggles with her work/home balance.
But where the two programmes really part company is in the treatment of their murder investigations. US viewers are used to the instant hit provided by long-running warhorses like CSI and Law & Order where perps are caught in 60 minutes and tidy, pat conclusions are the norm.
In the original Prime Suspect, cases would unfold over several hours and be punctuated by wrong turns, mistakes and miscarriages of justice. With Prime Suspect US, Jane Timoney is competing against the high clear-up rate of Olivia Benson in SVU and Brenda Leigh Johnson as The Closer, so the slow burn is sacrificed for the quick fix. It’s a shame because the show does lose something in the way of substance and nuance when judged in comparison.
Having said that, it’s not hard to see why Prime Suspect has attracted international attention. With its blurred morality, strong cast and hard-boiled atmosphere, it’s a well-executed slice of primetime crime and Bello seems very well cut out for playing as dirty as her male colleagues. Jane Tennison may have shattered the glass ceiling but her American counterpart can pack a punch too.