In the UK: Sunday 4th/Monday 5th January, 9pm, ITV1
While shows like Demons demonstrate that ITV1 still has somewhere to go to redeem itself with drama after a decade of predominantly awful output, something that we can probably all agree on is that ITV1 is the home of decent crime TV in Britain.
While the Beeb has restricted itself to anaemic period stuff, comfy escapism like Jonathan Creek, Inspector Lynley cobblers or excruciating rubbish like The Invisibles, ITV1 has been producing classics of modern, gritty crime fiction for decades, including the Prime Suspects, Cracker, Wire in the Blood and even The Bill. Okay Wallander was good, but for the most part, BBC1 has sucked, while ITV1 has done well.
Blimey though, has it really been nearly two decades since the first Prime Suspect. Doesn't time fly? I'm sure they'd be cranking out more episodes if only Helen Mirren hadn't decided to get old, curse her.
That might well be the thought Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante had when she was writing the novel Above Suspicion - while simultaneously being unable to get much stuff on TV other than one of those few ITV1 crime misfires, Trial and Retribution, and the slightly bland The Commander. "If only we could do Prime Suspect: The Early Years, hopefully with some hot young actress. Let me write that as a novel and see if they adapt it."
Hey presto, here it is. A two-part mini-series starring the exceedingly hot (and talented) Kelly Reilly as a young rookie DC hunting a serial killer. This one's going to run and run.
Anna Travis (Kelly Reilly) has been assigned to her first murder case - a gruesome series of killings that has shocked even the most hardened of detectives. The murders started eight years ago, and now the body count is up to six. The method of killing is identical, and the victims are all drug-users and prostitutes.
Then a seventh body is found. The modus operandi is the same, but the victim is a young student.
Determined to earn recognition from her boss, the brusque Detective Chief Inspector Langton (Ciaran Hinds), and the respect of her male colleagues, Anna works hard to find a vital piece of information which links one man to the murders.
The suspect is Alan Daniels (Jason Durr), a much-loved actor on the brink of international stardom. His arrest would create media frenzy. But if he is found innocent Anna’s hard fought for reputation would be destroyed.
Above Suspicion is yet another creation from Lynda La Plante, the creator and writer of a string of critically-acclaimed and ratings-winning crime dramas including Prime Suspect, The Commander and Trial and Retribution.
Lynda says, “It is very exciting, this is the first time that one of my books has been adapted for the UK screen and I am thrilled."
Was it any good?
It was good. Not great, but good. It's hard not to take the same plot as Prime Suspect (female police officer has to overcome her male colleagues' mistrust of her to work out if a plausible, suave man is really a serial killer), the same writer as Prime Suspect and the same director as Prime Suspect (Christopher Menaul) and turn out something bad.
But despite being good in a lot of ways, there were enough elements that didn't quite work and enough repetition of themes we've seen a dozen times elsewhere that it faltered. The shorter run time also meant that while Prime Suspect saw a gradual building up of plausibility, evidence and character that the eventual unveiling and confession of the suspect was a well earned reward, here it just felt rushed. I was quite expecting a third part until half an hour before the end, particularly since a number of plot threads seemed to get picked up and dropped without resolution.
Most of the problems stem from the familiarity of the story. We've seen dozens of crime scenes, we've seen plenty of serial killers, we've seen dozens of rookie cops throw up because of the smell of a dead body, we've seen sexist male cops forced to accept their female colleagues. Okay, most of the prejudice towards rookie cop Reilly stems from her inexperience rather than from her being a woman, but it would be refreshing to have a female cop turn up and everyone say, "Hello, love. Here's your desk. Right, let's get down to work," and that would be that.
Still, male cops were a lot nicer a whole lot quicker than in Prime Suspect, and most of the misogyny stemmed from civilians, so clearly times they are a changing, at least in Lynda La Plante's world.
The result of all this familiarity was that there didn't seem to be much of a theme to the story or even a message, other than the idea that famous people might be able to get away with murder, which isn't exactly new.
I'm not quite sure what to make of Reilly's performance. While she does a good job, she comes across as the least convincing DC ever - either half drunk or half stoned and not really engaged in what's going on. Giving her bed head and sending her to muddy crime scenes in short skirt and heels didn't help either.
But as that demonstrates, most of the problems stem from the writing. Her character as written is inexperienced, but excessively so. Indeed, there was a ridiculous and actually quite offensive scene where three-stone Reilly tries to push a disabled witness out of his vastly heavy electric wheelchair and into a swimming pool if he doesn't answer her questions. Again, not her fault so I'll cut her some slack, and she did have to endure A for Andromeda, so she deserves some.
Meanwhile, it was a battle of the accents for both her and Jason Durr (Nick Berry's replacement on Heartbeat) as the potentially evil actor. Neither of them were convincing, which is a shame since their performances were good in every other respect.
Menaul's direction was first rate, although I didn't find the inserted imagined flashbacks, in which Reilly's thoughts about the murder victims, etc, would suddenly start playing out in the middle of photographs, to be a good device, more a gimmick.
All the same, it was engrossing, mainly thanks to Reilly, Durr and Menaul and it's clearly going to be the first in a long series, particularly given the good ratings (c.7m). If they can somehow perk up Reilly's character so she knows what she's doing and steer away from the obviousness of the Prime Suspect parallels, it could be a reasonable if undistinguished series - certainly better than the later Prime Suspects.
Here's a trailer or two for the show.
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A review of the first episode of ABC’s Black Box
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