When Prime Suspect premiered in the 1990s, star Helen Mirren and show creator Linda La Plante were rightly hailed for creating one of the most vivid and complex cops in TV history. Mirren’s work as Jane Tennison — an intelligent, overworked, embittered drone — was a revelation, not least of all because this potentially depressing character was so endlessly interesting: prickly yet likable, victimized by sexism yet never a victim. The new PBS prequel Prime Suspect: Tennison, which takes us back to the early days of a rookie Tennison played by Stefanie Martini, is a tedious dud, awkward and obvious.
Based on La Plante’s novel, this British production rolls out a very standard police-show scenario — the investigation into the murder of a teenaged prostitute. You quickly get the feeling that the producers didn’t want to plot to get in the ways of all the period details and heavy-handed characterization they wanted to roll out. Set in 1973, the show teems with period music — Steve Winwood and Pink Floyd surge on the soundtrack as we see a corpse on a London back street, or follow Jane on a rainy walk home. The men have long sideburns and ask Jane to fetch tea and biscuits before letting her into the room to hear details about the case.
Martini was good in a recent Masterpiece adaptation of Anthony Trollpe’s Doctor Thorne. Here she has a star-making opportunity, but it’s all she can do to navigate the mediocre dialogue and terrible scenes she’s given, many designed to remind us that Sexism Is Terrible. It’s enough that Martini’s Jane is ogled and ordered around by her fellow police officers, but when she goes home to her parents, the show becomes almost laughably obvious. Her father snipes, “Why are you late? Yer mum’s been worried sick.” (Awwww dad, I was at a murder crime scene! ) “You come home late and you’re moody!” mom says reproachfully. This poor kid; how’s she going to grow up to be Helen Mirren? It was reported that creator La Plante left this production over issues including casting. Everyone ought to have followed her out the door.
Prime Suspect: Tennison premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on Masterpiece Mystery on PBS.
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