Here’s the thing about NBC’s version of “Prime Suspect”: It’s nowhere near the same show as the original, brilliantly executed string of British miniseries starring Helen Mirren.
Here’s the other thing, though: When you get past that (which, admittedly, is not the smallest hurdle), you find that it’s a very good crime show in its own right, anchored by a fantastic performance from Maria Bello.
Why NBC chose to buy the rights to “Prime Suspect” and use the name while making what is structurally a very different show is a bit of a mystery. There’s name recognition, of course, but while those who watched it generally loved it, it’s not as if it were some big, broad-based hit in this country. What’s more, the fact that the original is so well-liked sets a high bar for any adaptation.
The show premiering Thursday (Sept. 22) won’t erase the memory of Mirren as Jane Tennison. But it has the potential to become memorable in its own right.
Bello plays Detective Jane Timoney, a recent transfer to an all-male squad of homicide detectives who have not welcomed her with open arms. Stiff-arms is more like it. She gets passed over for cases and talked down to constantly, and when she complains to her lieutenant (Aidan Quinn), she only stirs further resentment and talk that she’s slept her way into her current position.
The male detectives’ treatment of Jane is so over-the-top bad that showrunner Alexandra Cunningham has acknowledged that she’ll dial that back in the future. But the point is made in the pilot that A) a woman still has tough sledding in an all-male environment and B) Jane is not likely to go up the human resources chain to file a complaint.
She is, instead, going to keep chipping away and trying to prove herself, which she gets a chance to do in a high-profile murder — albeit under circumstances that are far from ideal. But she also sees things that the guys, in their zeal to get a quick close on the case, don’t see, and eventually starts to prove she belongs.
She’s never going to win them over via her charms, though. Jane is prickly, a bit of a know-it-all and trying to quit smoking, so she’s not the easiest person to get along with: A colleague asks her at one point, “Do you ever worry someone might drop a house on you?” She responds, “The car’s not gonna drive itself.”
Bello inhabits Jane nearly completely — it may be the best single performance in a new series this fall. She’s tough, funny, occasionally vulnerable (there’s an effective scene with her boyfriend, played by “The Shield’s” Kenny Johnson, where she lets her guard down) and just riveting to watch.
Cunningham seems to have a strong sense of how to balance stories about this complicated character with the plot-driven demands of a weekly network cop show. There are plot developments in the case that help inform Jane’s character and those of her colleagues, and times where character beats help move the story along. It’s a tricky balance, but one I hope that Cunningham and her fellow writers can maintain as the season goes on. If they can, this version of “Prime Suspect” could be great.
“Prime Suspect” premieres at 10 p.m. ET Thursday on NBC.