Monday, December 25, 2006

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Prime Suspect: The Reassessment


I recently saw the seventh and final installment of the Prime Suspect series, appropriately entitled Prime Suspect: The Final Act (2006), and it inspired me to go back and rewatch the original series from its beginning in 1991. Truth be told, I wasn't wowed by Prime Suspect 7; it seemed a little too formulaic and too much like other procedural crime programs (the Law & Order Syndrome, I suppose) and its major "human" back story - that Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison was now battling alcoholism, while admittedly an interesting break away from the series' straight crime procedural narrative and a return to the basic hook of the first season, namely how a female detective battles sexism in the workplace and the personal costs and sacrifices it entails - just didn't hold my interest. It wasn't a very interesting plot (a teacher knocks up a student who is then murdered), as far as I was concerned, and its hostage/siege denouement was an anticlimatic finale for such a great series. Still, I wached, because Series 6 - which aired here in 2004 (after airing in the UK in 2003), ending a 7-year drought caused by Helen Mirror leaving the series in 1996 "to avoid typecasting" - was so great.

Admittedly, I was never big on Tennison's back story beyond the Police Woman can do a Man's Job premise. Her love life just didn't interest me; you knew any relationship would suffer if it conflicted with her true passion for police work and the scenes of her relationship troubles seemed to bog down the crime narratives. I felt like saying, I got it, let's move on. Because the best part of the series was the adrenaline rush of Tennison and her crack police teams (which introduced a who's who of veteran and upcoming English acting talent - in fact USA Today's Robert Bianco famously characterized the show's casting aesthetic as "Prime Suspect sticks to the theory that actors should be chosen for talent and not because they're attractive or because they might attract a younger audience." Quite right!) when "the case was a-foot" (in Sherlock Holmes' vernacular) - this was the thing that kept me staying up late watching until I was bleary-eyed. That's why I think the series writers were right to underplay the sexism theme in the sequels, relying on straight procedure or on other subplots (institutional and community racism in Prime Suspect 2, pedophilia and prostitution in Prime Suspect 3, drugs and police corruption in Prime Suspect 5 and ethnic cleansing and Balkan war crimes in Prime Suspect 6).

Besides, while one can admire Tennison's steely resolve in the face of institutional sexism and her no bullshit approach to justice, Prime Suspect avoids painting her as a one-dimensional heroine. In fact, the warts-and-all portrait it paints of Jane Tennison is rather unflattering. As DVD Verdict's Mike Pinsky observes:
...Tennison is never portrayed as a superhero, or even much of a role model. Perhaps her anger is justified by the fact that the men around her really do try to shove her in the corner, but she still seems pushy and remote. Tennison smokes too much, frets over her love life, and nitpicks the work of her junior officers. She is stubborn to the point of even obsessing over false leads just because others oppose her judgment. But she is right far more often than she is wrong. If she were a man, the team would envy the size of her balls. Instead, they resent her and try to block her efforts to solve the case, angry that she might get credit.

Perhaps Tennison's persona was tailor-made for Helen Mirren. As DVD Verdict said of her, "Not an A-list star, no longer young and pretty, she has always pushed furiously against the Hollywood stereotype that aging actresses should fade from sight." Kind of like Tennison fighting against the Old Boys Club of the British police force in the '90s where men led murder investigations and women were relegated to preparing budget reports or joining the typing pool. No wonder Tennison suspects that a conspiracy of secret handshakes and lodge connections are at work to undermine her efforts.

Each Prime Suspect case ran around 3½ hours and usually aired in two parts. Prime Suspect 4 was an exception at 4½ hours in three separate mini-cases.

The first five series were produced at a steady pace of one every eighteen months between 1991 and 1996, until Helen Mirren left the role after 1996 to avoid typecasting. She returned to the character in 2003 in Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness.

During that time Prime Suspect won three Emmys for best miniseries and Helen Mirren was nominated four times for best lead actress in a miniseries, winning in 1996.

Series Rankings

1. Prime Suspect 1: A Price To Pay (1991) -
The first and the best because the first cut is the deepest - literally, as we are introduced to mutilating serial killer George Marlow (John Bowe), one of the great crime villains and a pathological liar who maintains his innocence to the end. This one set the bar quite high and features the wonderful Tom Bell (called the British Jack Palance by one clever critic) as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley and a strong script by series creator Lynda La Plante. Plus this is the baby that started it all and introduced all the sublots -the political and sexist infighting of Tennison versus the Old Boys Gang including her boss Detective Chief Inspector Michael Kernan (John Benfield). Ralph Fiennes even turns up in a cameo as a street punk.

Writer: Lynda La Plante

Career Track: Jane Tennison gets her first case as a Detective Chief Inspector in this one. Her boss is the ever ambitious and politically savvy DCI Michael Kernan.

Love Life: Tennison is living with Peter, a whiney, needy, namby-pampy businessman with baggage (a kid) who's going through a separation. In other words, a total loser. Peter is played by Tom Wilkinson (The Full Monty).

Team Tennison: DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell), DI Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbrass), Detective Constable Jones (Ian Fitzgibbon).

Trivia: Tennison takes over the case when popular Good Old Boy detective John Shefford, played by John Forgeham, drops dead from a heart attack; Forgeham would later turn up as Earl's Park Football Club owner Frank Laslett in the popular British soap opera Footballers' Wives, a series in which he also dies of a heart attack.

2. Prime Suspect 3: The Keeper of Souls (1993) -
Prime Suspect 3 picks up after Jane has left Southampton Row for the Vice Squad after her promotion is rejected by the boys' club that runs the London police. She inherits Operation Contract, a scheme to trim the population of rent boys who prowl the London streets. These rent boys, underage male prostitutes, are pimped by the seedy Prime Suspect James Jackson (David Thewlis, at the peak of his career, fresh off his riveting role as Johnny in Mike Leigh's Naked), though all clues seem to lead ultimately to the untouchable Edward Parker-Jones (an outstanding performance by Irish actor Ciaran Hinds). Lynda La Plante returns to script this third installment in the Prime Suspect series, adding the inspired twist of pairing Tennison up with her old nemesis from the Marlow case, detective Bill Otley (Tom Bell) — only this time Otley is actually on her sidein a dark tale of gay prostitution, pedophilia, and police cover-ups.

Writer: Lynda La Plante

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Chief Inspector in this one, under Supt. Halliday (Struan Rodger), but by the end of this case she's learned to play the game, basically blackmailing her superiors into a promotion (to Superintendent) by agreeing to drop her investigation into the sordid pedophilic habits, and subsequent police coverup, of corrupt retired Assistant Deputy Superintendent John Kennington (who committed suicide after confronted by Tennison).

Team Tennison: Detective Sgt. Bill Otley (Tom Bell), DS Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), Insp. Larry Hall (Mark Strong), DI Brian Dalton Andrew Woodall), DC Lillie (Philip Wright), and DI Ray Hebdon (Mark Drewry) - I think the later is the detective who admits he's gay, shocking his co-workers, when they ask how he knows so much about London's gay nightclubs.

Thorndike Factor: Supt. David Thorndike makes a token appearance at a Good Old Boys Club banquet event in the opening.

Masonic References: At Assistant Deputy Superintendent John Kennington’s retirement party Supt. Thorndike (Stephen Boxer) introduces himself to Judge Syers (Lewis Jones), by mentioning that they had "met at a lodge banquet". [00:19:22]

3. Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (2003) -
Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison's investigation of the murder of a Bosnian refugee leads her to one, or possibly two, Serbian war criminals determined to silence the last witness to a massacre a decade before.

Writer: Peter Berry

Career Track: At 54, Detective Supt. Tennison is in charge of all London homicides, but the force would like to ease her into retirement - and why not? With 30 years on the force she's got her pension, so what's left to prove? Her boss is Det. Chief Supt. Larry Hall (Mark Strong) - who once worked under Tennison as a DI in Prime Suspect 3 - and the junior officer she snatches the case away from is DCI Simon Finch (Ben Miles). Tennison seems very desperate in this one, coming to grips with the realization that her career is nearing its end and rather clueless how to carry on when she finally does hand her badge in.

Love Life: Predictably, Tennison shags old flame Robert West (Liam Cunningham, who's a dead ringer for French action star Jean Reno), when the war photographer accompanies her to Bosnia to dig up dirt on Prime Suspect Milan Lukich's involvement in an alleged war atrocity there. Totally unnecessary scene; sorry, I have problems with seeing a woman in her 50s undressed. And Tennison's partners increasingly look to be younger men who, in society teaches us anything, tend to go for The Young Stuff.

Team Tennison: DCI Simon Finch (Ben Miles), DC Michael Phillips (Barnaby Kay), DC Lorna Greaves (Tanya Moodie), DC David Butcher (Sam Hazeldine)

Hypocrisy Factor: In the Prime Suspect 4 episode The Lost Child, DI Tony Muddleman got the suspect's girlfriend to squash his alibi after illegally playing her a videotape of the suspect's confession to child molestation. Tennision blew her top and let Tony face the music with a police review after the case was closed. Ironically, Tennison will employ the same illegal technique in Prime Suspect 6, playing a tape to Serbian killer Zugic (Velibor Topic) in prison in which it is revealed that the compatriat he killed for, Milan Lukich (Oleg Menshikov), is a traitor. Also, in Scent of Darkness, Tennison visits George Marlow in prison and reveals details about an ongoing investigation into his copycat murders in hopes of getting information from him, a visit which causes her to get suspended from the force. She repeats this irregularity in Prime Suspect 6 without getting reprimanded.

4. Prime Suspect 2: Operation Nadine (1992) -
Another great series. From IMDB: "Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison now deals with a racially charged murder. The long-dead body of a young black woman is discovered in a district recently convulsed by police brutality and which now is in the midst of a highly-charged political campaign. Her investigation is hampered by the hostility of the local populace, and the clumsy methods of some of her subordinates and irresponsible journalists make things worse." Tennison's job is further complicated when former lover Sergeant Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon in a breakout performance) is assigned to her team as a subordinate.

Writer: Allan Cubitt

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Chief Inspector in this one, working under Detective Superintendent Michael Kernan. When Kernan gets promoted to Detective Chief Superintendent after the case and the slimy DCI Thorndike replaces him as station Superintendent, Tennison requests an immediate transfer.

Love Life: Tennison's former lover Sergeant Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon) is assigned to her team as a subordinate. Tennison treats their relationship as a brief interruption from her work, whereas Oswalde wants to be more than just "black stud". Despite their shared "outsider" paranoia - Tennison as a female cop in a male-dominated workplace, Oswalde as a black man in a white-dominated society, the result is yet another blown relationship for Tenny.

Team Tennison: Detective Sgt. Rob Oswalde (Colin Salmon), Detective Sgt. Richard Haskons (Richard Hawley), DI Tony Muddyman (Jack Ellis), DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbass), DC Lillie (Philip Wright), DC Jones Ian Fitzgibbon), DC Rosper (Andrew Tiernan).

Thorndike Factor: DCI David Thorndike (Stephen Boxer), Tennison's nemesis from Internal Affairs, investigates her relationship with Sergeant Rob Oswalde when a suspect detained by Oswalde commits suicide. There's also a Freemasonry reference involving the creepy Thorndike in this episode:
Kernan: "Now, how in hell did the Commander know what’s happening on your calls already?"
Tennison: "What do you mean?"
Kernan: "Well I brought you back to lead this enquiry."
Tennison: "Well, I'll give you one guess. And it involves funny handshakes."
Kernan: "Thorndike? Same lodge?"
Tennison: I'll put my money on it. [00:12:06]

5. Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement (1996) -
After getting censured for insubordination (and a refusal to play politics) at the end of Prime Suspect Season 4, Tennison finds herself transferred from London to working-class Manchester, where sleeping with her boss isn't her only error of judgement in this story of drugs, murder and corruption in the Midlands. Writer Guy Andrews gives Tennison a formidable druglord foe in Prime Suspect Clive "The Street" Norton (Steven Mackintosh) and a new and memorable team of detectives in the form of soft-spoken/heavy Northern accented (as in: hard-to-understand) Detective Sergeant Jerry Rankine (David O'Hara), scene-stealing Detective Inspector Claire Devanny (Julia Lane) and stoic Detective Captain Henry Adeliyeki (John Brobbey).

Writer: Guy Andrews

Career Track: Jane Tennison is a Detective Superintendent, working under Detective Chief Superintendent Martin Ballinger (John McArdle).

Love Life: Tennison sleeps with her married boss DCS Martin Ballinger, who does her few favors. When she requests a team of her own choosing, her boss/lover replies: "You'll eat what's on your plate, Jane."

Team Tennison: DS Jerry Rankine (David O'Hara), DS Pardy (Martin Ronan), DI Claire Devanny (Julia Lane), DC Henry Adeliyeka (John Brobbey), DC Skinner (Anne Hornby), DC Growse (Antony Audenshire)

Masonic References: "That bloody Jane Tennison, she'll be storming into your nick, the balls of your best officers trailing from her jaws, spraying people with claret, calling people masons, threatening resignation.... Well, I just wanted to tell you that I'm not a complete maniac." [00:07:55]

6. Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act (2006) -
Melissa Guthrie in Pop Matters writes:
Helen Mirren is finally burying Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison.

But the irascible Scotland Yard detective of PBS’ “Prime Suspect,” as gifted as she is damaged, will by no means go quietly into that good night.

Pushing 60 and on the brink of retirement, she has one last case. A 14-year-old girl—gifted, happy, from a good family—goes missing and is eventually found dead. And Tennison is also breaking apart. Her father, Arnold Tennison (Frank Finlay), is dying. And Jane is terrified, though she’d never let on, of leaving the only life she has ever known. Faced with prospect of becoming utterly unmoored by her father’s death and her own retirement, she has embarked on a downward spiral with gusto: drinking herself into amnesiac stupors.

It is a particularly dark chapter in the “Prime Suspect” canon.

“I think this one’s a tough one,” says Mirren. “Absolutely.”

“Life isn’t always wonderful and optimistic and gorgeous is it? `Prime Suspect’ has tried never to veer away from truths and realities in life. I think the police live in a very, very difficult world. They’re the ones that go when everything has gone horribly wrong. They deal with extremes of emotion and extremes of despair. A lot of them do become drug addicts. A lot of them do become alcoholics. A lot don’t have personal lives.”

That's apparently what Tennison has to show for 35 plus years on the force: no personal life, no partner, no family, no children. In fact, this episode's greatest intimacy transpires between Tennison and her old Prime Suspect 1 nemesis, detective Bill Otley (Tom Bell), back for another strong performance when the two run into each other at an AA meeting and bond over their shared alcoholism. Bill even takes a bullet for his old boss. But it was not without controversy, as reported by Charlie McCollum in the San Diego Mercury News:
"...the tone of ``Final Act'' caused something of an uproar in Britain even before the series aired there last month. Writer Lynda La Plante, who created Tennison but did not participate in this installment of ``Prime Suspect,'' said in an interview with one British newspaper that she thought it was sad ``that for the end of a great character, female, somebody has to say, `Make her a drunk.'"

And what a drunk. Tennison spends her nights with a bottle of Scotch, starts her breakfasts with vodka, and drinks wine from the bottle while tooling around town in her Saab.

Even more crushing, Tennison tries to bond with a young girl who reminds her of the child she could have had before opting for a termination in Prime Suspect 4, but it's a no-go; even this innocent turns against her.

Writer: Frank Deasy

Career Track: End of the line.

Love Life: Absolutely none. The closest moment of intimacy is when a barkeep tries for a little slap and tickle with her and a drunken Tennison snarls, "Piss off!"

Team Tennison: DS Alun Simms (Robert Pugh), DCS Mitchell (Brendan Coyle), DI Traynor (Robbie Gee), DS Cox (Russell Mabey), DC Wood (Laura Doddington).

Obit: Tom Bell, one of England's great character actors, died at the age of 73 earlier this year after completing his final turn at Det. Sgt. Bill Otley in Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act.

7. Prime Suspect 4 -
The weakest in the franchise and the first season to go episodic, breaking the season into three mini-episodes (the first two rather routine): The Lost Child, Inner Circles and Scent of Darkness. All are OK, but only the last one, Scent of Darkness, was noteworthy because it brought back original Prime Suspect serial killer George Marlow and a copycat killer who puts Tennison's career in jeopardy (did she put away the right man or did justice get bungled? - the Good Old Boys in the force want her to fail and whet their lips in anticipation until Tennison proves herself right - a second time). It's the first time Tennison is taken off a case and has to stay off the case - a humiliating turn for her and one that causes her to get an official reprimand and suspension, despite her solving the case on her own and saving an adbucted woman before the copycat killer does her in.

Career Track: Jane Tennison finally gets her first case as a Detective Superintendent in Prime Suspect 4's The Lost Child. Will success spoil Jane Tennison? Nah. As DVD Verdict's Mike Pinksy puts it, "Snappy suits and a close haircut notwithstanding, Jane is still the same bullying, obsessive, and impulsive career cop she has always been."

Love Life: Having just received her promotion to Det. Supt. in the season-opening episode The Lost Child, Tennison isn't going to let a love child get in the way of her career and starts her first day at the office with a morning termination, the quaint British term for an abortion. In Season 4's Scent of Darkness, Tennison's boyfriend Dr. Patrick Schoefield (Stuart Wilson), a psychologist serial killer expert, seems to be conspiring against her, adding friction to their frisson and casting doubt about their relation to the always paranoid Tennison.

Team Tennison:

Thorndike Factor: He's back and whetting his lips in Scent of Darkness after Tennison's Marlow case is reopened amidst allegations that she put the wrong man in prison. It's Tennison darkest hour, as she is put on suspension and humilated.

Hypocrisy Factor: In The Lost Child, DI Tony Muddleman gets the suspect's girlfriend to squash his alibi after illegally playing her a videotape of the suspect's confession to child molestation. Tennision blows her top and let's Tony face the music with a police review after the case is closed. Ironically, Tennison will employ the same illegal technique in Prime Suspect 6, playing a tape to a Serbian killer in prison in which it is revealed that the compatriat he killed for is a traitor. Also, in Scent of Darkness, Tennison visits George Marlow in prison and reveals details about an ongoing investigation into his copycat murders in hopes of getting information from him, a visit which causes her to get suspended from the force. She repeats this irregularity in Prime Suspect 6 without getting reprimanded.

The Cast: Tennison's Teams

Richard Haley, as Detective Inspector Richard Haskons, is the longest running member of Jane Tennison's crew - appearing in the first four seasons of Prime Suspect, which means he followed her to her new city appointments - and her most loyal confidante.

The next longest running/most loyal team member is Jack Ellis, as Detective Inspector Tony Muddyman, who appeared in Prime Suspect 1, 2 and Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child. We learn that Tony was himself molested as a child, and hence his police brutality against a suspected child molester in that episode - an incident which costs him his career.

Tom Bell, as Detective Sergeant Bill Otley, also turns up in three seasons: Prime Suspect 1, 3 and 7.

And Jane Tennison's nemesis, the creepy DCI David Thorndike, also appeared in three seasons: Prime Suspect 2 (investigating Sgt. Rob Oswalde's involvement in a suspect's jailhouse suicide and Jane Tennison's romantic involvement with Oswalde), Prime Suspect 3 (a cameo) and The Scent of Darkness episode of Prime Suspect 4 (in which he relishes the chance to see if Tennison bungled the George Marlow case and miscarried justice). Thorndike is to Tennison what the X Files' Cancer Man was to Scully and Mulder.

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Prime Suspect: The Beginning

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