The second best thing about NBC’s “Prime Suspect” is that it doesn’t attempt to shoehorn the UK original into an American cop-show format.
Anybody who admired the BBC’s six-hour political thriller “State of Play” would probably have agreed with the critic who said the two-hour Hollywood version starring Russell Crowe was “overstuffed” and had too many plotlines.
Here, the opposite could have been a problem. In the “Prime Suspect” that starred Helen Mirren, beginning in 1991, it took 200 minutes or so to solve the crime. It was certainly brilliant and also a lot more satisfying than the usual 50-minute cop procedural. But that was it. That was the entire season over in a couple of weeks. One couldn’t expect Lynda La Plante’s “re-imagining” of the concept she created 20 years ago to take many risks with the local format.
NBC retained the basic original idea: an experienced female detective, a 2nd-generation cop, steps into the shoes of a revered but very dead predecessor and in the process steps on his brother officers’ toes. The level of hostility she encounters in the first couple of episodes doesn’t really make much sense in 2011 and too many absurd aspects are introduced to buttress that core idea. Some of the cops, too, come across as dimwitted or incredibly boorish, or both, as in the case of Brían O’Byrne’s Det. Reg Duffy.
“Prime Suspect,” however, finds its rhythm in the 3rd and 4th installments (the 5th is on tomorrow night). It would be just another cop show, though, if it didn’t have Maria Bello, who has the talent and charisma to follow the NYPD trail blazed by Telly Savalas (Lt. Theo Kojak) and Dennis Franz (Det. Andy Sipowicz) and is a lot better looking than both of them.
Of course, Lt. Jane Timoney follows Jane Tennison of the London Metropolitan Police. She’s also the latest in the long line of sympathetically portrayed Irish-American NYPD homicide detectives that stretches back at least to Barry Fitzgerald’s Lt. Dan Muldoon in “The Naked City” (1948).
And not since that former Abbey actor played Muldoon has a fictional NYPD project involved such direct connections to Ireland. O’Byrne, who also made his name on the stage, is from Cavan, while costar Aidan Quinn, who plays the boss Lt. Kevin Sweeney, was born in Chicago to Irish immigrant parents and spent some of his childhood in Dublin and Offaly.
Completing the quartet of Irish-American characters is Det. Timoney’s father, Desmond (Peter Geraty), who runs a bar.
The Tony-winning O’Byrne, one imagines, was pleased that the writers softened his character’s demeanor by the 3rd episode and beefed up his IQ by about 25 points. Meanwhile Bello’s Timoney, impossibly heroic early on and also smarter than all of her colleagues, was cut down to more human dimensions by the 4th. Her prime suspect in that one was innocent.
Bello plays her character as intensely focused. The detective puts up a mental wall against any negativity around her while at work. Outside of it, she has the loyal support of her father. Her boyfriend, however, is increasingly unhappy with her long hours, and he’s distracted by his battles with his ex-wife about custody arrangements for their child. He was played as an Aussie in the first version of the pilot by British actor Toby Stephens; but when the episode was broadcast, he’d been replaced by Kenny Johnson. The latter is more of a leading-man type, but with less personality than Stephens. That move sets up more of a contrast with Quinn’s character and you don’t need to be Nora Roberts to see in which direction that’s headed.
Success of a New York-set cop show can depend to an extent on it creating a sense of place. “Prime Suspect” got off to a bad start here. Near the beginning of the first episode, Timoney jumps into a cab and asks to be taken to “Houston and Prince.” That’s not the sort of mistake that Joyce would have made about Dublin in “Ulysses.”
“NYPD Blue” was shot mainly on the West Coast, but its producers worked hard on recreating the city’s ambiance and they succeeded. It was competing with “Law & Order,” which followed the “The Naked City” tradition of being made in New York.
“Prime Suspect” does borrow a trick from the 1948 film: lots of aerial photography. It uses footage, too, taken from moving cars, and one rooftop scene with a Manhattan Bridge backdrop was impressive.
Still, the producers could do worse than have Bello, Quinn and O’Byrne do their stuff more often in some real New York streets.