NBC's Prime Suspect Remake Is 20 Years Behind the Times

Slate's Culture Blog
Sept. 22 2011 2:27 PM

NBC's Prime Suspect Remake Is 20 Years Behind the Times

Prime Suspect Poster.

Prime Suspect poster courtesy of NBC Entertainment Marketing.

The poster for NBC’s Prime Suspect shows Maria Bello, a firm hand on her famous fedora, next to this strapline:

June Thomas June Thomas

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

“Cop. An attitude.”

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My reaction:

“Not. Helen Mirren.”

In the British original, Mirren played Jane Tennison, who solved sordid murder cases while battling bad habits and male chauvinist colleagues in seven short-run series that aired between 1991 and 2006. She was sinned against and sinning, weak-willed and determined. She was magnificent. How could anyone, much less a mere American, possibly live up to that?

Watching the pilot cemented my sense that NBC had made a terrible mistake by using the famous title. Maria Bello’s Jane Timoney, a NYPD homicide detective, is undoubtedly dicked around by the men on her squad. When it’s her turn to catch a murder, a male colleague always seems to get the call instead, but when there’s unglamorous work to be done in an inconvenient borough, the job’s all hers. The guys are a pack of gruff-voiced cavemen who talk sports, take stinky dumps at murder scenes, and never invite her along when they retreat to the lieutenant’s office to talk about their cases over whiskey. Of course, Timoney isn’t exactly Miss Congeniality—she’s confrontational and uncompromising, and she will keep demanding her rights.

Even so, Jane Timoney’s hostile workplace environment is like daycare compared with Jane Tennison’s. Timoney’s New York colleagues are far from welcoming, but there’s a suggestion that at least some of their tribalism has its roots in the deaths and disruptions of 9/11. Their most intense bond seems to be around Irishness—the members of the squad, including the Latino officers, know all the words to traditional ballads, and there are more tricolors on the desks than in an Irish bar in February. But Timoney is Irish-American, too; she likes guns; she’s tough. Her isolation seems personal, something that will blow over as soon as the team gets to know her better. Similar to the way the guys in The Closer got used to an outsider—not just a woman, but a Southerner with a romantic history with their boss at the LAPD to boot—and came to love and respect her.

And then I re-watched the first episode of Helen Mirren’s British version. I’d forgotten the details and hadn’t realized that the American pilot lifted several plot points. It’s a reversal of Law & Order: UK, which took story lines from the U.S. show and invented a fresh batch of British personalities. The problem is that the British original was made 20 years ago, a time when women's rights were a dangerous (for the men) and tantalizing (for the lone woman) proposition.

Jane Tennison was struggling to crash through a glass ceiling: She desperately wanted to be the first woman to lead a murder squad. If that meant spending hours interviewing low-end street prostitutes, missing family celebrations because of more pressing career imperatives, or pretending not to hear when subordinates call her “bitch” or “dyke,” she was willing to pay the price. Some of the coppers on her team behaved inappropriately by any standard, but even Tennison’s more reasonable superiors worried that if they assigned her a case, she and her sisters would just want more. Tennison was a pioneer. Timoney is just another 21st-century cop impatiently waiting her turn to chase bad guys.