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NBC’s ‘Prime Suspect’ Reinvents ITV’s Restrained Jane Tennison

Aymar Jean Christian September 22, 2011 uncategorized Comments Off on NBC’s ‘Prime Suspect’ Reinvents ITV’s Restrained Jane Tennison

Anticipating the premiere of NBC’s remake of the British ITV series Prime Suspect, I’ve been watching the original, starting from the first series in 1991. Americans watch UK TV for a lot of reasons, but one of them is to revel in British austerity, their infamous reserve in tense situations.

Watching Helen Mirren imperfectly make her way through a single case for three hours was marvelous. Mirren’s Jane Tennison is restrained, at times emotionless, but angered and saddened when the moment allows. Each series culminates in a long tense interrogation in which Tennison draws out a confession without ever having to throw a punch, often without raising her voice. She takes solace in facts, tediously amassed through methodical yet inspired detective work.

Not so much with NBC’s Prime Suspect.

And that’s okay. It’s comforting to know American remakes of foreign properties can be counted on to turn restraint into profusion. That was the major critical complaint against AMC’s The Killing. We wanted AMC of Mad Men, the most reserved show on television. What we got was a show that started AMC and ended closer to NBC. The original Prime Suspect is probably closer to what critics wanted from the US The Killing. The US Prime Suspect bypasses understatement completely.

Sometimes, though, the American way is just as good, maybe not as arty or groundbreaking, but good enough.

Maria Bello’s Jane Timoney is much more aggressive and a bit more stylish than Jane Tennsion. She brandishes her gun or badge when it’s necessary. She takes a beating or two. She pounces, more than walks, around Manhattan and Brooklyn.

Then there’s the story. While the same on its face — the pilot mirrors the 1991 series’ focus on a serial rapist/murderer, plus Jane’s outsider status as woman taking over a dead man’s job — NBC raises the adrenaline by a lot. One of the earliest shots is of a blood-soaked murder scene, more explicitly graphic than the UK original. Jane is trying to quit smoking, giving her plenty of excuses to yell at people, or look ready to yell at people.

It begs the question of why NBC decided to do the remake at all. After all, tough female sleuths are hardly rare these days and are typically quite popular — Rizzoli & Isles, The Closer, Medium, etc. Some Americans are familiar with Prime Suspect, but the show is 20 years old, and while Mirren is hot right now, she’s been a star for awhile.

Obviously the reason has to do with why a lot of TV networks, not to mention film studios, are remaking and adapting already known properties: built-in marketing. Prime Suspect should get a lot of initial interest from sophisticates and Mirren fans, and with luck it might earn critical respect like CBS’ The Good Wife did. But whether those audiences choose to stick around will depend on how the show is structured: will it treat detective work with the kind of respect and complexity its source material did?

I doubt it, but even if it doesn’t, the pilot teased me with a tough-as-nails yet whimsically fedora’ed detective eager to beat up bad guys and boss around dumb cops. We’re American. We like it loud and uncomplicated.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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