Skip to Content

Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #2: ‘Prime Suspect’

Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural #2: ‘Prime Suspect’

Prime Suspect

Created by Lynda La Plante and Alexandra Cunningham

Based on the ITV series Prime Suspect created by Lynda La Plante

imdb, NBC, Thursdays at 10 PM

1.01 Pilot

Directed by Peter Berg

Written by Alexandra Cunningham

1.02 Carnivorous Sheep

Directed by Jonas Pate

Written by Alexandra Cunningham

1.03 Bitch

Directed by Michael Waxman

Written by Liz Heldens

1.04 Great Guy, Yet: Dead

Directed by Jonas Pate

Written by John McNamara


The U.S. Prime Suspect has one terrible, undeniable problem: its title. Even though the U.S. Prime Suspect is closely based on the U.K. Prime Suspect, the title just doesn’t work. The reason for this has everything to do with the structural difference between U.S. broadcast network prime-time and U.K. broadcast network prime-time.

The original Prime Suspect is one of the best TV shows of all time. In bringing us the adventures of DCI Jane Tennison, Lynda La Plante blazed a path for female detectives on TV and tackled head-on sexism both in the police force, on TV and in a very meta fashion inside the creative process of putting together a television show.

It wasn’t the first show to feature a female detective, of course. The pioneer was Angie Dickinson in Police Woman, although ironically, as an undercover officer, the uniform that “Pepper” Anderson wore the least was that of a cop. With the exception of Cagney and Lacey, most of the female detectives that followed in Police Woman‘s wake tended to be amateur detectives rather than cops (Murder She Wrote) or were there more to look good as detectives than actually be good (Charlie’s Angels), or they could only act as detectives because of a man like Hart to Hart (husband and wife team based partly on The Thin Man film series) and most famously Remington Steele, which implicitly criticized sexism by forcing Laura Holt (Stephanie Zimbalist) to invent a fictitious boss, because no one would take a woman seriously as the head of a detective agency, giving the con man played by Pierce Brosnan the opportunity to assume the Remington Steele identity.

Remington Steele was a critical series for the evolution of female detectives on TV because it pointed to the hypocrisy of women having the skills and ability to be the boss, but rather than being allowed to fill the position they were qualified for, forcing them to take orders from men who were neither qualified nor capable. The next logical step was for a woman to actually be the boss. It was not until DCI John Shefford (John Forgeham) dropped dead in the first Prime Suspect that a woman would get that chance and lead a proper murder investigation as the top cop on TV.

British readers will now no doubt be waving their hands, clearing their throats and saying “Yes, but.” or “Actually…” Yes, I am fully aware that ITV’s The Gentle Touch and BBC’s Juliet Bravo both featured women as top cops on British TV before Prime Suspect. There are two significant distinctions: Prime Suspect aired on TV in North America – on PBS’ Mystery! while The Gentle Touch and Juliet Bravo did not. In fact, Prime Suspect was so well received in the U.S. that Helen Mirren was nominated for a Best Actress Emmy six times, winning once. More importantly, as with Cagney and Lacey, The Gentle Touch and Juliet Bravo featured female characters who struggled with the conflict between the masculine demands of their job and their identities as women.

To be fair to Cagney and Lacey, Christine Cagney was originally intended to be a much tougher character, a precursor to Jane Tennison. In the original television movie the part was played by Loretta Swit, who brought both toughness and sexuality to the role. When Swit was not allowed to leave M.A.S.H. to play the Cagney part in the T.V. series, she was replaced with Meg Foster. The series was cancelled after the first six episodes, because TV executives interpreted Foster’s aggressiveness to mean that her character was a lesbian. The producers replaced Foster with Sharon Gless to mollify the CBS executives, in the process softening the character.

Listen, I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don’t like Ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen.” -DCI Jane Tennison

DCI Jane Tennison never once struggled with a conflict between being a woman and being a cop; she never once needed a man to do her job for her, or to make it possible for her to do her job – she mainly needed them to do their jobs and get the hell out of her way. Her struggles were the same as that of any other (male) cop: the struggle to leave the job at the office, the struggle with addiction and most importantly, the mano-a-mano struggle between prime suspect and cop.

Prime Suspect earned its title through gruelling psychological battles between Tennison and her suspects. To a lesser extent, it also earned its title through the suspicion of her police force colleagues towards a female top cop, hypocritically objecting to the same qualities in her that they praised in male cops. As late as the fourth season of Prime Suspect, DCI Jane Tennison is still being forced to prove herself when a series of murders similar to the ones that she solved in the first series shed doubt on her original solution and the conviction of her prime suspect.

The difficulty with adapting the U.K. Prime Suspect to American TV is that it has already been done once very successfully with The Closer – starring Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson. Like Tennison, Johnson is the top cop of her unit who starts as an outsider resented by her male colleagues; like Tennison, Johnson struggles with addiction – albeit it to sweets instead of alcohol; like Tennison, Johnson solves her cases through skillful interrogation. Unlike Tennison, Johnson feels no need to duplicate the masculine bravado of her male colleagues, finding more feminine ways to lead her unit.

Oddly, while Tennison acts more confident of the two, Johnson may actually be more secure, willing to steal a page from another West Coast detective – Columbo – and act dumb if it helps her crack the case. Tennison never likes to hide her intelligence, while Columbo and Johnson take a positive delight in being underestimated. The Columbo character is loosely based on Porfiry Petrovich, the detective from Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Fittingly, Columbo‘s best episodes are the ones where he pretends to be a dumb Italian peasant during confrontations with aristocratic dilettantes. In the same way, Brenda Johnson takes a special delight in pretending to be a dumb Southern belle, in order to catch chauvinistic murderers.

So NBC’s new Prime Suspect has a hard road ahead of it, trying to emerge from the shadows of two beloved and critically acclaimed series. (Like Helen Mirren for Jane Tennison, Kyra Sedgwick was an Emmy favourite for Best Actress, nominated five times, winning once for playing Brenda Johnson.)

Maria Bello is fantastic as hard-as-nails police detective Jane Timoney. Like Tennison, Johnson and Christine Cagney, she is a deeply flawed person who struggles with her addictions. While she is currently struggling with her decision to quit smoking – an act of solidarity with her father, Desmond (Peter Garety) after his recent cancer scare – Timoney also uses alcohol as a crutch. Unlike Tennison and Johnson, Timoney is not the head cop of her unit. She is at best first among equals, answering as they all do to Lieutenant Kevin Sweeney (Aidan Quinn).

There is a tiny but telling detail in the pilot: a white marker board with victim’s names written on it under the names of the detectives handling the cases. This is the murder board made famous by Homicide. Normally, victim’s names are written in red if the cases are open (unsolved) and in black if they are closed. The purpose of the murder board is for the lieutenant to be able to see at a glance who in his squad is clearing cases and who is closing them.

Much of the language of a homicide squad comes from baseball: they meet in a bullpen, they catch cases, the best detective is usually called the closer. When Sweeney’s best detective (and friend) Keating (Jason Beghe) dies of a heart attack in the pilot, while Sweeney objects to Timoney trying to grab Keating’s last open case, on the grounds that Keating stole it from her in the first place. Sweeney does eventually give her the case, at first because it’s fair, but principally because he needs a new closer and Timoney is the only person in his squad whose ability to close cases is untested.

Timoney solves cases not through brilliant deductions, but through experience, by talking to people, by dogged stubborn police-work and by noticing small but crucial details. In other words, she solves crimes like Lenny Briscoe of Law and Order. In Pilot, she dismisses Keating’s prime suspect, a favourite because he was arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Timoney knows however that where he was arrested, the prostitutes are men and she correctly reasons that the dead woman’s gay best friend wouldn’t have murdered her in a jealous rage. In Carnivorous Sheep the critical clue is a child’s toy on the floor. In Bitch a stubborn search of property records turns up the murder scene. In Great Guy, Yet: Dead, the suspect is caught by Timoney’s insistence on re-searching the murder scene after dark for the murder weapon and then by using the GPS on the suspect’s phone to lead the squad to his accomplice who actually pulled the trigger.

If Prime Suspect is complimentary towards Law and Order, it’s highly dismissive towards its sister show Law and Order: SVU, despite the fact that they share the same network. The first episodes feature memorable confrontations between Timoney and SVU. The Law and Order universe makes SVU detectives look like angels with battered halos, doing everything they can to protect and avenge their special victims. The SVU detectives of the Prime Suspect universe are suspicious and territorial. They would rather that a serial rapist go free than admit that he has graduated to murder, especially if that would mean homicide stealing the collar.

The common bond of all four shows to date has been that the crimes are all simple and the criminals stupid. This leaves room to deal with Timoney’s private life and her attempts to fit into her new squad. While the show has a long way to go to become The Good Wife of cop shows, it certainly seems like the show is trying to do its best to balance the one-and-done crime procedural part of the show with the serial melodrama of Timoney’s private and professional life.

Many were uncomfortable with the sexism that Timoney faced in her squad during these early episodes. The key to that sexism is that the squad is not objecting to Timoney being a woman, they are objecting to Timoney acting like a man. This is emphasized by the appearance of Carolina Rivera (Elizabeth Rodriguez) as the robbery detective investigating the stick-up at Desmond Timoney’s bar. Duffy (Brian O’Byrne), the detective who hates Duffy the most, is Rivera’s mentor. The only cost to Rivera in that relationship is that she has to act the part of a virginal sex-kitten around all male cops. One of the squad’s complaints against Timoney is that she is sleeping with Matt Webb (Kenny Johnson) a high-ranking officer in the N.Y.P.D. and (in their minds) that is how she “earned” her position as detective. The hypocrisy between approving of Rivera acting like she will sleep with them when she never will and disapproving of Timoney for sleeping with one of their bosses, should be obvious.

The benefit to Rivera of playing that role is that she is not harassed like Timoney; the downside is that she is not taken seriously either. When Rivera figures out a pattern of businesses robbed by with the same M.O. and same robber description as the one at the bar of Timoney’s Dad, Timoney is the only detective that Rivera can turn to and ask for advice.

The risk of using the same sexist element as the original Prime Suspect was alienating the audience with a storyline that might not seem relevant. (Even if currently there are no female homicide detectives on the N.Y.P.D.) It also risked alienating the audience from a truly excellent supporting cast for Maria Bello. The reward is that it allowed Timoney to show her strength and stubbornness as she won over her squad, even if she had to endure a beating in Pilot and had to watch an innocent man commit suicide in front of her after the accusation of being a child kidnapper ruined his life in Carnivorous Sheep. By the end of the third episode Bitch, Duffy is playing practical jokes on Timoney – his way of accepting her to the squad as one of the boys. The running gag of Great Guy, Yet: Dead is a $100 bet that Timoney has with Augie Blando (Tim Griffin) about how and why the murder was committed. Her constant one-upmanship of Augie to the raucous approval of the homicide bullpen is an obvious sign that she has been accepted.

Bitch is clearly the best episode of the series to date, mainly because it earns dramatic moments that were planted in the first two episodes. In addition to Duffy’s change of heart, it is also the first time that Timoney feels secure enough to admit weakness: by admitting to Sweeney that she doesn’t know whether the husband or the boyfriend make the best suspect and by admitting to Augie and Calderon (Kirk Acevedo) that she isn’t a good enough runner to try and run twelve blocks to test the husband’s alibi. It also features the first real interrogation of a prime suspect that leads to a confession, making it the first episode in the series to really earn the title.

The reason that Prime Suspect, as a title, is ill-suited to this show is exactly because it is trying to blend the short story format of solving mysteries with a longer serial form of story-telling. With each episode 44 minutes long (after commercials) there is only so much time left to find the prime suspect, let alone confront him and bring him to a confession. Bitch was only able to fit the climactic confrontation in by keeping Timoney’s relationship with Matt Webb off-screen for that episode.

By comparison, the original Prime Suspect was more akin to a series of novels told in serialized form. The shortest case was solved in 100 minutes and most went twice that long. This extra time allowed for ample room to identify, investigate and interrogate a prime suspect. No wonder that fans of the British series feel cheated when they watch the new series. There simply isn’t room on U.S. network prime-time to tell a mystery that lasts that long. (Admittedly, there have been attempts some with strong initial success like Twin Peaks, Murder One, and The Killing, but most have ended unhappily.)

The new Prime Suspect will never be the equal of the British series, but it doesn’t have to be – any more than an Alice Munro short story has to be the equal of a Margaret Atwood novel. The new series can also do things that the British series could never do: tell a series of short stories that also create a much longer narrative. Because its aims are completely different, because so little time on the show will be spent with an identified Prime Suspect and because by the fourth episode of this series, Timoney is no longer a suspect to her squad, the Prime Suspect title of the series is misleading and probably counter-productive.


One final point. A great deal of fuss has been made about Timoney’s hat. The producer Alexandra Cunningham has made a point of mentioning that many New York detectives wear hats. That may be true. I accept the hat because I view it as a way to illustrate Timoney’s character.

What that hat tells me is that Timoney grew up idolizing two New York detectives, one from films and one from TV. The TV detective was Kojak, who like Timoney struggled with quitting smoking and wore a fedora, now called the Kojak.The film detective was “Popeye” Doyle from The French Connection (and the criminally underrated The French Connection II). Popeye wore a pork-pie hat not a fedora, but like Timoney, he was an Irish cop with a knack for solving cases in unorthodox ways and a tendency to use alcohol as a crutch.

When Maria Bello clutches that hat like a magical talisman, it tells me that it is Timoney’s way of staying connected to her role models. Timoney could never be a simpering sex-kitten like Rivera. Her heroes didn’t simper. They were detectives, they were one of the boys, and that is all that she has ever dreamed of being.

The OCP is obsessive and compulsive about procedurals. Check in with us every Wednesday as we examine a different TV detective and how they solve crimes.

Michael Ryan

View more articles in Mike’s “Obsessive, Compulsive, Procedural’ column