TV Review: Maria Bello is Best Reason to Interrogate ‘Prime Suspect’

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CHICAGO – Watching the premiere of NBC’s “Prime Suspect” again, I was struck by something undeniable — this feels like a TNT show. Yes, we’ve officially reached the point where basic cable is influencing network TV more than the other way around. If the “Mad Men” clones (“The Playboy Club,” “Pan Am”) didn’t make that readily apparent, NBC’s best new show feels like a descendant of “The Closer” and “Saving Grace”. Like those shows, the best thing about it is an incredibly strong lead female performance. Some of the writing is a bit cliched and even manipulative, but Maria Bello propels “Prime Suspect” above most of the other procedural/cop shows on TV, network or cable. TV Rating: 3.5/5.0
TV Rating: 3.5/5.0

You may wonder how “Prime Suspect” could have more in common with “The Closer” than with the award-winning Helen Mirren telefilms from which it steals its title and elements of its central character. And I do mean “steal.” My biggest problem with “Prime Suspect” is that it shouldn’t really bear the name of one of the best recurring series in the history of TV. It’s just going to pale by comparison for those who have seen the amazing originals. Most things would. And all it really shares in common with the “source material” is a strong female hero in a male workplace. So it feels a little underhanded to take a well-known name from a show that a lot of viewers may not have seen and try to associate with it. There’s just no way for the dense, standalone stories of the “Prime Suspect” movies to translate to a full-season series. So why take the name?

Prime Suspect
Prime Suspect
Photo credit: NBC

Getting past that, “Prime Suspect” is a strong cop show with an incredible female lead. The super-talented Bello should have been Oscar-nominated for her work in “A History of Violence” and was also great in “Beautiful Boy,” “The Company Men,” “Thank You For Smoking,” “The Cooler,” “Auto Focus,” and much more. It’s striking how grounded Bello can seem on film. She’s always completely believable in the moment — listening, reacting, adding dimensionality that other actresses wouldn’t consider. She has that rare talent in that you can never really see her “acting,” just responding. And she gives a subtle, strong performance in the series premiere of “Prime Suspect.” If she continues to improve, as most performers do after a pilot gets greenlit and they get more comfortable in the character’s shoes, she must be considered in Golden Globe and Emmy conversations about the Best Actress on TV.

Prime Suspect
Prime Suspect
Photo credit: NBC

Bello plays Jane Timoney, a confident NYPD homicide detective surrounded by men who think she slept her way to her position and wouldn’t be competent enough to investigate a case even if she had earned it. It is a strikingly male chauvinist world but Timoney knows she can’t be too aggressive in her opposition to it. If you fight back, you’ll just get more sh*t. So she has to keep her mouth shut and just do as good a job as possible. It’s made her a focused detective, the kind of person who can ignore the alpha male banter and fighting for squad prominence. And Bello nails this character, one who’s always thinking more than acting out.

The cops giving poor Jane a hard time are headed by Detective Reg Duffy (the great Brian F. O’Byrne from “Mildred Pierce” and “FlashForward”). Duffy goes at Jane the hardest, making clear that he doesn’t want her there, especially not filling the shoes of a former beloved colleague. Kirk Acevedo, Tim Griffin, and Damon Gupton also star as fellow detectives and Aidan Quinn plays the Lieutenant. Peter Gerety plays Jane’s father and Kenneth Johnson (“The Shield”) her boyfriend.

This far into the review and we haven’t even mentioned the case at the center of the series premiere of “Prime Suspect.” It’s not as essential to the program’s success as other cop shows. And that could be a problem. I worry that audiences will be turned off to a show that spends more time with the people solving the crime than the actual DNA evidence that’s become so popular in the procedural genre. The fact is that the case isn’t as important to the team behind “Prime Suspect” (including director Peter Berg) as Jane and the people in her life. The explosion of shows like “C.S.I.” has left old-fashioned programs like “NYPD Blue” and “Hill Street Blues” in the dust. In those shows, we were more concerned about the cops than the ins and outs of their particular case. “Prime Suspect” could be that kind of rich, character-driven drama. Or it could fall flat after a strong premiere. Only time will tell if Jane can solve the biggest case of all — how to turn the tables and get network TV to steal the driver’s seat back from cable.

“Prime Suspect” stars Maria Bello, Aidan Quinn, Brian F. O’Byrne, Kirk Acevedo, Tim Griffin, Damon Gupton, Peter Gerety, and Kenneth Johnson. The pilot was directed by Peter Berg and airs on Thursday, September 22nd, 2011 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Anonymous's picture

I worked on the re-boot of

I worked on the re-boot of Prime Suspect for the last 2 1/2 years and was searching online to see what the buzz is prior to its premiere. I found most of your article to be well written and thought out except for the paragraph where you say this version is “stealing” the name of the Helen Mirren series. No, this is a remake just like American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, X-Factor, etc. are remakes of UK shows. Of course things had to be changed to bring it up to date for an American audience but don’t think for one second that the original scripts were not referenced and won’t continue to be reference in the future.

Also, you mention this show seems like a descendant of shows like “The Closer”. The Closer is almost a direct copy of the original Prime Suspect! All these shows with female leads are made possible because of Helen Mirren’s PS. So the remake is a descendant of the original, not of these copy-cat shows that came later.

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