Since she is after all a Detective Chief Inspector as the first Prime Suspect program begins, it stands to reason that Scotland Yard is aware that it is the '90s. But when viewers discover that no other female officer – including those who also possess Jane Tennison's advanced rank – has ever been in charge of a murder investigation before, we're not wholly convinced that the Met realizes it's the 1990s.
When an esteemed colleague drops dead of a heart attack in the boss's office, Helen Mirren's headstrong yet admittedly slightly insensitive DCI jumps at the chance to take over, having been consistently passed over for promotions and cases in the past.
Ultimately lobbying for the position she's grudgingly given, Jane ignores her personal life including her down-on-his-luck boyfriend Tom Wilkinson to try and make a case stick against a man who shares the same DNA with the murderer of a prostitute who'd been bound and killed.
And predictably, Tennison's male colleagues are openly hostile about working for a woman right from the very moment when she first steps into the incident room.
However, once the complicated case begins to implicate the deceased officer who held the position before Jane, the squad becomes even more threatened by the prospect that a woman will be breaking through the glass ceiling of the boy's club to share what's really been going on to those outside the thin blue line of justice.
Yet despite her overreliance on alcohol, cigarettes and falling into bed with the wrong people including fellow officers, superiors and married men, the workaholic Tennison always gets her man, woman or child in the nine mysteries that span Acorn Media's complete collection of one of the UK's most critically acclaimed, award-winning imports, which set a new bar for both police procedural series as well as female antiheroes.
Unspeakably gritty and nearly claustrophobic in its insulated intensity of luring you into dicey flats, cornering you in an interrogation room, or daring you to look away during medical examination reports, Prime Suspect makes for engrossing but decidedly uncomfortable viewing that you can't really call entertainment even though at its best it compels you throughout Suspect's extraordinarily long running times.
Typically it involves you in every aspect of the process from the commission of a crime and the psychology of the suspects up through the sociological implications of each incident as Tennison tackles issues involving race, class, pedophilia, drugs, prostitution, immigration, kidnapping, homelessness and more.
Yet as much as it is championed for its at times unsympathetic, glamour free yet nonetheless frequently heroic female main character's dogged determination to fight for what's right, Prime Suspect can admittedly get a bit frustratingly heavy handed as it continues.
And this is particularly infuriating in the overly melodramatic nonetheless Peabody honored second case that deals with racism but – aside from dishing up a strong plot twist and empathetic characters-- disturbingly carries an antifeminist subtext throughout by reminding you that had the white, older Tennison not slept with a younger black officer than an innocent black youth wouldn't have died.
While it's fascinating to see the way that Tennison evolves – or rather doesn't – more accurately evolving over the course of the better part of two decades on DVD, it's especially intriguing to gauge her interactions with some of the fellow officers she works with on more than one occurrence.
Despite the fact that he starts off as an antagonist and winds up becoming one of her strongest allies in bookended appearances during Suspect's 1 and 7, the role the supporting cast plays is best epitomized by the character of Bill Otley (Tom Bell) who shows up for the three strongest cases in the set (1, 3, 7).
However, much like her mostly nonexistent and ill-suited love life, Tennison's professional relationships are always temporary as she rises through the ranks with each case she solves and changes locations from one cast to the next, being demoted to vice in one instance and sent to work as a school liaison in another.
Mirren and a routinely impressive stable of guest stars including the likes of Ralph Fiennes, David Thewlis and others are simply marvelous, regardless of the fact that Suspect is sometimes plagued by its epic running times which drag out some otherwise superior cases including the fifth and sixth installments.
And while more often than not viewers are able to intuitively follow their gut feeling in identifying the perpetrator usually long before they're dragged into Suspect for their ultimate confession, the constant reminder that Tennison has to be able to deliver a rock solid case that will guarantee conviction beyond reasonable doubt is best personified in the third installment which is arguably the most engrossing case in the lot.
Written by the show's mastermind Lynda LaPlante who always raised Suspect to thrilling heights and never fails to make me wish she'd written (or rewritten) more of the cases, Series 3 finds Tennsion given a meaningless distraction job to get young prostitutes off the street.
Shortly into the endeavor, she uncovers yet another shocking tie to the people with whom she works after the death of a seventeen year old male hooker reveals a major conspiracy that reaches into the lives of politicians, police, and social workers.
Psychologically chilling and frequently maddening since – just like the sixth mystery involving the murder of a young Bosnian war survivor – Tennison must repeatedly relinquish her main suspect back to the world until she finds enough witnesses who will talk that are still living by the time the respective miniseries end.
Much like Robbie Coltrane in the superior Cracker or David Suchet in the more mainstream adaptations of Agatha Christie's Poirot, Prime Suspect offers a superlative body of work that showcases the mesmerizing talent of Helen Mirren's powerful performance, thereby illustrating just what we're missing in the by-the-numbers detective dramas that run on this side of the pond.
And even though you'll definitely need to come up for air in between installments as the inescapably seedy dark side of London can be understandably draining when presented through this particularly grisly of a filter, for anyone who's drawn to the genre, Prime Suspect makes a thrilling addition to your crime filled collection.
Text ©2010, Film Intuition, LLC; All Rights Reserved. http://www.filmintuition.com Unauthorized Reproduction or Publication Elsewhere is Strictly Prohibited and in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.
Labels: TV on DVD