Review: Prime Suspect (US) 1×1

Crown jewels remade – and not too badly

In the US: Thursdays, 10/9c, NBC

Prime Suspect is one of British TV’s crown jewels. Twenty years old this year, the Granada show about a female detective’s (Helen Mirren) struggles against the misogyny and sexism of her male colleagues during the investigation of a prostitute-murdering serial killer is an absolutely superb bit of television: when I rewatched it this year, I almost cried at how good it was compared to the vast, vast majority modern British television drama. 

Attempts to make a US version of Prime Suspect have been ongoing almost since the show originally aired. But finally, NBC has got its act together and made a series version of the show. Starring Maria Bello (The Mummy 3, A History of Violence) in an impressively wacky set of hats and scarves, it sees DCI Jane Tennison become New York’s Detective Jane Timoney, who transfers to a new precinct dominated by men who don’t like her and don’t trust her, but have to learn to deal with her when she heads up a murder investigation.

And although there will be a collective protest that our crown jewels have been stolen, the show is actually mostly pretty good – when it sticks to the script.

Here’s a trailer.

From Emmy Award-nominated producers Peter Berg (NBC’s "Friday Night Lights") and Alexandra Cunningham ("Desperate Housewives") comes the crime drama "Prime Suspect" that takes a look inside a New York City homicide department. The series stars Maria Bello ("A History of Violence") as tough-as-nails NYPD homicide Detective Jane Timoney, an outsider who has just transferred to a new squad where her new colleagues already dislike her. Jane is confident and focused – and also rude, abrupt and occasionally reckless. She has her vices, and rumors of a questionable past follow her everywhere – but at the end of the day, she’s an instinctively brilliant cop who can’t be distracted from the only important thing: the prime suspect.

Also starring are Aidan Quinn ("Unknown") as Lt. Kevin Sweeney, Brían F. O’Byrne ("Flash Forward") as Det. Reg Duffy, Tim Griffin ("Star Trek") as Det. Augie Blando, Kirk Acevedo ("Fringe") as Det. Luisito Calderon, Damon Gupton ("The Last Airbender") as Det. Evrard Velerio and Peter Gerety ("Blue Bloods") as Jane’s father, Desmond Timoney.

Based on the critically acclaimed British television series of the same name, "Prime Suspect" has been redeveloped for American audiences by Cunningham and Berg. "Prime Suspect" is produced by Universal Media Studios, ITV Studios America and Film 44. Cunningham is the executive producer/writer along with executive producer/director Berg and executive producers Sarah Aubrey, Julie Meldal-Johnson, Paul Buccieri, Lynda La Plante and John McNamara.

Is it any good?
You know, it’s actually pretty darn good apart from the first five minutes and the last 10 minutes.

If you’ve seen the original version, your thoughts will progress something like this as you watch: "Hmm, that’s new… Oh, that’s very American and silly, threatening a cab driver with a gun just to clumsily demonstrate that she’s a bad ass cop… Okay, this I don’t recognise, because the guy’s not killed a prostitute and who’s this family friend?… Oh, hang on, so this guy’s the guy who has the heart attack… this guy must be the new Otley… Oh! This is familiar! That’s the Tom Wilkinson character, that’s the Ralph Fiennes character and that’s him and that’s him and that’s him… Oh, that’s a bit more Closerish than Prime Suspect… Actually this isn’t bad. Quite thoughtful, quite clever… Oh here’s the boxing match and the press conference… And… and… What. The Fuck. Where’d that come from? Why? Oh, well that’s a handy coincidence that wraps the entire thing up in 10 minutes when you an entire two hour episode of extra plot to deal with."

If you’ve not seen the original, you’re more likely to think "What’s new about this then?"

So, essentially what the producers have done is come up with a halfway decent police procedural based on Prime Suspect. You have the "beef trust" (I must have misheard that), a bunch of New York cops who all sound exactly the way you think New York cops must sound. They think new arrival Jane Timony has slept her way to the top and has no actual talent so they don’t like her. When their boss dies suddenly of a heart attack, his boss (Aidan Quinn) puts Timony on the job instead. Using her detective skills and female insights, she convinces most of them at least that she genuinely has what it takes.

Meanwhile, Timony has her boyfriend’s ex-wife to deal with – she won’t let his child come to visit because of Timony’s guns and phone use – as well as her retired dad.

And as long as the show sticks to that original Prime Suspect script, it’s actually very good, head and shoulders above the majority of unrealistic, tedious police procedures that dominate CBS’s airwaves. Bello isn’t Mirren, but she’s very good in her own right, although the legion of strange hats and scarves she wears is incredibly distracting. Timony is actually an interesting character, well developed and with interesting traits (not just her giving up smoking). The direction by Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights) gives the whole show an extra sense of realism. And the supporting cast is actually very good, too, even if Quinn’s accent is a little wobbly. Irish actor Brian O’Byrne – the new Otley – who did so well on Brotherhood and does equally well here, actually manages a better New York accent than Quinn. 

However, when the new show starts to diverge from the original, it all falls apart and the intelligence disappears. Bello’s introduction is clumsy and cliched. The way the murderer is found relies on ridiculous serendipity. His capture, rather than being a meticulous piece of detective work, is standard US cop show running-around work. And Timony’s bitch slapping of the ex-wife using her police powers is another cliche that should have been left in the 90s.

The show also suffers from a naming problem: why is it even called Prime Suspect? The original was about the investigation of the prime suspect, the slow accumulation of evidence that eventually unequivocally nails him. Here, there’s no investigation, only capture. More time is spent actually finding a suspect than investigating him.

The question is: where next? Will Timony have to suffer sexism every week, even though she’s largely won over everyone already? Is it simply going to be The Closer (New York), with Timony showing how cleverly persuasive and knowledgeable she is every week, while the guys look on in grudging respect? We’ll find out next week, but at the moment, the show doesn’t have a real hook. It can’t convince us that in 2011, the average female police detective in New York faces these kinds of doubts about her ability to do the job – it’s not 1991 any more. It’s not a true investigation piece. So what is it?

Nevertheless, there’s enough quality work going into this that a watching of the second episode is worth a look at least. Sure, Maria Bello’s hats will continue to inspire ridicule, as will portions of the script. But there is at least more to the show than King, for example. And given the other main new crime shows hitting our screens are the remake of Charlie’s Angels, Person of Interest and Grimm, this is likely to be the best of the lot.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.