Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison
is an intense, driven, flawed alcoholic who meets sexism and harassment
on the job with determination and a sense of political saavy.
Not only is she technically shrewd, she is also a fine, highly intuitive
detective who feels her way toward the truth, occasionally stumbling
over her personal and professional faults - all of which make her
one of the most convincing and indelible fictional detectives ever portrayed.
Through the seven installments of Prime Suspect, Helen Mirren
shapes this complex character, making an equally exorbitant investment
in Tennison's self-destructive tendencies and her talent for police
This series of seven long, multi-part
films, originally broadcast on ITV in the UK and on PBS's Masterpiece
Theatre here in the US, comprise no less than some of the finest
crime drama ever televised. Although there are traces of the great
British traditions of crime fiction here and there, Prime Suspect
has a distinctive style marked by a focus on character and dire, bleak
atmospherics. Gray skies, concrete police buildings and housing
estates, and the fluorescent lights of cheap offices and municipal morgues
are the visual signals that tell us we're neck-deep in police work.
Yet it's a far more grim and realistic look than the brighter colors
of, say, Law and Order.
But the real distinguishing features
of all seven series of Prime Suspect are the writing and the
acting. Creator Lynda La Plante wrote the first and third installments,
establishing the major characters and tone of the show. Tennison
is an outsider, a woman working in a man's world, a fact that drives
her professional successes just as it contributes to regular flare-ups
of her personal flaws. Particularly during the earlier series,
Tennison is beset by a variety of forces that plague her career, originating
in the criminal world and among her own colleagues. Prime Suspect's
second major character, appearing in the first, third, and seventh series,
is Tennison's chief antagonist and colleague, Detective Sergeant Bill
Otley, played with a cadaverous, withering smarminess by Tom Bell.
Sexist, treacherous, and threatened by Tennison's talent, Otley works
hard through the first and third series to discredit Tennison, hoping
to have her removed from his supervision. Otley's adversarial
- and, at times, outright illegal - behavior drives Tennison to
further excel at her job - and to drink excessively off-duty.
Her relationships with men, at times healthy and at times not, are always
short-lived, thanks to her professional commitment and dependence upon
Mirren and Bell are joined by a parade
of fine actors in roles both large and small. Tom Wilkinson appears
in the first series as Tennison's kind but ultimately defeated boyfriend.
Ralph Fiennes is in it as well, but too briefly to merit the placement
his name receives on the DVD packaging. The third series alone
includes performances by David Thewlis, Ciaran Hinds, Mark Strong, and
Jonny Lee Miller. Frank Finlay appears in the last two installments
as Tennison's father. In short, much of the first rank of contemporary
British actors makes their way through the series at some point.
The storylines of each installment
of Prime Suspect are consistently compelling and often genuinely
unpredictable, particularly by the standards of the average crime drama.
The first series begins with a relatively straightforward rape and murder,
but the suspect is anything but usual: when Tennison first catches up
with George Marlow (played by John Bowe), his guilt is anything but
clear. We are unsure whether Marlow is the killer, or if Tennison's
ambition has gotten the better of her. In addition to the usual
murder or two, future series attack pressing and touchy social issues
such as racism, child prostitution, drugs and gangs, and war crimes
stemming from the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. In each case, plots
move swiftly and are often ingeniously constructed. Only very
occasionally do the machinations of the mystery genre reveal their cogs
But the real heart and soul of Prime
Suspect is Mirren as Jane Tennison. It's the tension she
generates as an unpredictable but brilliant loose cannon that keeps
us riveted to each and every minute of this outstanding series.
Tennison's flaws - her alcoholism, occasional irrationality, and
her struggle with double-edged "female" instincts - keep the character
on the fence, hovering between blockbuster success and the danger of
failure. We can't always predict that she'll do the right
thing - and even when she chooses the proper path, her behavior upon
it can be reckless and self-destructive in the pursuit of solving a
case, proving a point, or simply spiting antagonistic colleagues such
as the intolerant and dangerous Otley. In maintaining our interest
in Tennison, her missteps are as important as her wiser maneuvers.
They keep her human, plausible, and accessible.
Unlike their first DVD releases from
HBO, Acorn has compressed each series of Prime Suspect - each
of which vary between three and five hours in length - onto one disc.
Each of the seven discs has its own standard-width keepcase and all
are housed in a simple card slipcover.
As with most releases from Acorn, the image does not appear to have
been touched. Although the production was intended to have a pale,
damp look, the transfers of the first five series are downright soggy.
The PAL origins of the image can't have helped. They are blurry
and just not pleasant to look at. The excellence of the program
easily outweighs the transfer factor, and one gets used to this muddy
look pretty fast - in a way, it almost adds to the show's atmosphere,
albeit in an unintended way. The last two installments of Prime
Suspect were produced in 2003 and 2006, respectively, and look markedly
better in enhanced transfers. Still, even these are a bit too
broken-up for comfort, with over-compressed blacks and iffy detail.
Given the scale of this boxed set - and the price - one wishes Acorn
had put a little more effort into the visual presentation.
The first four series come with unfussy mono soundtracks, while
the final three have equally unfussy stereo tracks. In all cases,
the sound is uncluttered and generally clear, although an occasional
muffled quality gets in the way of clarity - it sounds like there's
a sock over the microphones. The soundtracks are nothing special,
but they get the job done with few outright flaws.
The first five series contain no extras at all. The sixth series includes
a short behind-the-scenes featurette (23:21), while the seventh
has a longer documentary on a separate disc - Prime Suspect: Behind
the Scenes (45:58) - that is more incisive and inclusive, covering
the program's whole history. It's a nice retrospective piece.
The complex, dark character of Jane
Tennison, as portrayed by the incomparable Helen Mirren, makes Prime
Suspect one of the finest detective dramas ever produced.
Only the lackluster technical presentation prevents me placing this set in the Collector's Series. Still, the show is an absolute must-see. Highly Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.