Prime Suspect: There's something suspect about this dated detective
Jane Tennison's American reincarnation is criminally old hat, says Sarah Hughes
Monday 18 June 2012
The remake game is a risky business.
For every US version of The Office or Shameless, cleverly conceived shows carving out a separate identity from the original material, there is a US Coupling or Viva Laughlin, shows so bad that just thinking about them brings on an involuntary shudder.
Then there's a remake like the American take on Prime Suspect, which starts on Universal tonight. From the moment NBC announced that it was taking on the Helen Mirren crime drama fans on both sides of the Atlantic were enraged. On paper, the new version should have worked. Executive producer Peter Berg, the man behind the award-winning Friday Night Lights, talked about the importance of treating the original material with respect and brought in its creator Lynda La Plante as an executive.
They also took their time casting their Jane Timoney (as Jane Tennison is now called), waiting a year before announcing that indie darling Maria Bello had the role. Bello is a clever actress with the right amount of heat bubbling under a cool exterior. She might not be Mirren but, as her performance in the criminally under-watched gambling drama The Cooler demonstrates, she is probably the next best thing.
Sometimes, though, even the best intentions go seriously awry. Such was the case with the American take on The Killing, which has long since stopped making any sense, and such is the case with Prime Suspect USA.
The first sign that the new version wasn't going to work came with the promotional material. Where Mirren's Tennison was cool, collected and above all cerebral – a woman of a certain age in crisp white shirts and black suits, Bello's Timoney was portrayed as a gunslinger complete with leather waistcoat, tight trousers and fedora hat.
Ah, the hat. There are whole pockets of the internet dedicated to the hat and why it is central to the new show's demise (it was cancelled in the US after 13 episodes). Put simply, where Jane Tennison had her demons, Jane Timoney has a hat. It's clothing as substitute for character and a perfect demonstration of how much NBC has got wrong.
Where the original was introspective and clever, as interested in the quiet moments around the edges as in the big reveals, the new show bangs us over the head with the sexism Timoney faces and her maverick outsider status. Neither plot point feels true. Where the misogyny faced by Tennison was an insidious daily drip, a lack of respect fuelled by a culture in which women were considered second best; the problems faced by Timoney are broadly drawn and verging on caricature.
That disconnect is not entirely the new show's fault. The original Prime Suspect aired 21 years ago and was a ground-breaking piece of television. These days our television schedules are stuffed full of cop procedurals, many of them featuring tough-talking lady cops. We've moved on from Jane Tennison to the near autistic dysfunction of Sarah Lund and Saga Noren. By comparison, Jane Timoney doesn't feel up-to-date so much as behind the times.
Ultimately, the Prime Suspect remake is not so much Tennison revisited as yet another variant on the US police procedural The Closer. It prefers to skate on the surface, solving a new case each week while denying its heroine real depth. By choosing to do so it wastes both the original source material and Bello's considerable talents.
Prime Suspect USA starts on Universal tonight at 10pm
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