Prime Suspect
Good Show

Prime Suspect, which debuted in 1991 starring Helen Mirren as Scotland Yard’s first female Detective Chief Inspector, was groundbreaking in myriad ways.  First and foremost, it was a frank and frankly ugly look at the ways that entrenched sexism hindered not only the advancement of women within the ranks of the Yard but how it also hindered the investigations themselves. 

Second, it turned Mirren—who later won an Oscar, as you may remember, for The Queen, but who at that point remained relatively obscure this side of the pond as just another of those great British Shakespeareans—into an international star and critics’ darling. 

Third, it spawned two decades worth of meticulous police procedurals that went way beyond the usual Columbo or Dirty Harry shenanigans.  (Prime Suspect is even being re-made this side of the pond this fall… hence the re-release of the 1991 version on DVD.)

The American formula for this type of show has now devolved into a team of, say, six to eight professionals who work together each week on a new crime to solve, with some throughlines about personal relationships and long-term mysteries to puzzle through.  Prime Suspect, though, if you choose to revisit it now twenty years after the fact, offers something pretty unique: a sprawling Scotland Yard serial murder mystery that involves (as you might expect from one of the world’s leading cities) a team not of six or eight, but of dozens.  Just about all of whom get screentime and speaking parts.  It’s an eyeful of how complicated investigations and departmental politics can become.

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect

The central crime here is the suspected homicide of a hooker, and the department’s crack partnership of John Shefford and Bill Otley threatens to get charges filed against prime suspect George Marlow in record time… but then Shefford is unexpectedly off the case, and in comes newly-anointed DCI Jane Tennison.  The all-male team instantly resents her presence and Otley rather nastily becomes almost as much of an impediment to the investigation as suspect Marlow and his common-law wife (and sometime hairdresser) Moyra Henson.  Tennison also has problems at home trying to make a relationship work with her upwardly-mobile and ambitious boyfriend.

Suffice to say that there’s a decent mystery here that I won’t say much about, as the rather languid intensity of the program would be spoilt by overanalysis.  But there are enough seeming red herrings that, even after the mystery is “solved,” you’ll be wondering if Tennison actually “got her man” when the final credits roll.  The teleplay, by award-winning mystery writer Lynda La Plante, is first rate and very, very well-directed by British TV regular Christopher Menaul.

In addition to that, however, two things about the program are particularly fun (depending on your perspective).  The first is the absolute loathsomeness of the sexism, as led by Tom Bell’s Otley.  This is a career-defining role, from an audience perspective—and he’s lucky to have had a career afterward, as I’m sure it was difficult for casting directors to seem him as anything other than grating and hateful.

The second is the minor parade of who’s-who cameos that trots through this program—Ralph Fiennes, who just culminated ten years as Voldemort this summer, Tom Wilkinson, Zoë Wanamaker, and other familiar faces.  And the relatively obscure John Bowe as Marlowe couldn’t have been better cast.  You’re never entirely sure whether he’s a conniving mastermind or unjustly accused cad/dipstick.

A bit on the slow side, this is nonetheless the TV program equivalent of a handcrafted ale.  Savor it.

Prime Suspect is unrated.  Given the savagery of the crimes and the naked bluntness of the imagery, consider it a solid R.

Courtesy of a national publicist, Greg screened a promotional copy of Prime Suspect.