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Prime Suspect Remake

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I agree completely with Matt Zoller Seitz:

“Prime Suspect” wasn’t burdened by such pressures. It wasn’t an American-style network TV show; it was a series of movies, or miniseries, or movie-miniseries. (That I’m having trouble just labeling it says a lot.) Created and overseen by Lynda LaPlante, it debuted in 1991 with a 200-minute, two-part drama. The next 200-minute two-parter aired 17 months later, in December 1992. Another aired in December 1993.  The fourth “Prime Suspect” departed from the template, offering three self-contained 100-minute stories that aired three weeks apart. The final three installments returned to the 200-minute, two-part model, airing in 1996, 2003 and 2006. It is hard to imagine any broadcast network indulging that kind of “whatever works” production schedule — and that’s the first warning sign that this project has an excellent chance of being flat-out bad, or else competent but compromised, like ABC’s short-lived American version of the ITV series “Cracker.”

If an Americanized “Prime Suspect” ends up on the NBC grid, it will likely debut at midseason with a six-episode limited run. If it gets picked up, its producers will have to make 22 episodes a year, each running about 42 minutes. The drama will be stuffed into ad-friendly five- to seven-minute chunks like Spam packed in cans. And although there might be some content that’s considered “edgy” by network standards, I doubt we’ll see anything like the opening act of “Prime Suspect 1,” which showed a group of male cops and a male coroner examining the naked, pasty, hideously hacked-up corpse of a female rape-and-murder victim. Far from being gratuitous, the scene was integral to the program’s unflinching attitude toward the vilest human behavior. It looked at savagery through a cop’s eyes. And the sexualized brutality showcased in that first scene connected to the professional and personal struggle of DCI Tennison, a great detective whose male colleagues treated her as, at best, a female interloper, at worst a piece of meat.

An NBC version of “Prime Suspect” can’t match the first 20 minutes of the first British show, or spend 200 minutes (five regular-length American broadcast TV episodes!) on a story as racially and sexually charged as the one that drove “Prime Suspect 2,” or attempt a muckraking urban epic along the lines of “Prime Suspect 3,” which dealt bluntly with prostitution, child pornography and the death of a “rent boy” without seeming exploitative. Nearly 20 years after the debut of “NYPD Blue,” NBC and its broadcast brethren still aren’t tough enough or wise enough to handle that sort of thing. Commercial cable is only slightly better-equipped. There’s violence galore on FX and AMC and other commercial cable channels, but it’s mostly stylized genre violence (action thriller mayhem, sci-fi gore). They’re still oddly shy about sex, shooting around naughty bits when they show the act at all. And they won’t let characters say “fuck”; when John Slattery’s character said it on “Mad Men” — a series aimed squarely at adults — AMC bleeped him. (And since I mentioned “Cracker,” let’s note that on the original British series, Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz was a chain smoker. ABC didn’t want to air a show with a hero who smoked, so on the U.S. remake starring the late Robert Pastorelli, the hero was an ex-smoker who kept a cigarette tucked behind one ear.)

More important, American TV is averse to letting race, class, politics and other touchy elements drive stories because it might make viewers and sponsors skittish. That’s why the American crime show’s favorite bad guy is the serial killer, a mythologically exaggerated monster whose existence lets filmmakers titillate and terrify while declining to engage with society at large.

Jane Tennison never dealt with effete, wisecracking, Hannibal Lecter-type bogeymen. She lived in reality. Over 15 years,”Prime Suspect” dealt frankly with sex, sexism, race, class and the intrusion of politics into police work. It did so subtly, prizing plausibility and never delivering a jolt without reason. And it treated time as an ally instead of an enemy. One of the pleasures of “Prime Suspect” was the opportunity to re-engage with it after a long break and discover that Tennison had risen in rank or settled into a new job or a new relationship. The gaps between installments enhanced the sense that you were seeing excerpts from a life in progress.

You can’t do any of that on NBC. You can’t re-create or even approximate “Prime Suspect” in a commercial broadcast network series that airs 22 episodes a year. The material can’t breathe in the same way. And forget about being unflinching. What passes for unflinching on NBC is “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” an entertaining but mostly absurd procedural that bears about as much qualitative relation to “Prime Suspect” as “Training Day” does to “Serpico.” And don’t even get me started on TNT’s “The Closer,” a fitfully entertaining series that has wrongheadedly been described as an American answer to “Prime Suspect,” presumably because its main character is a strong-willed female detective. (It’s not a subtle psychological drama, it’s a suck-up-to-the-star spectacle about a mercurial Southern belle following her muse and dazzling the nonbelievers. “Prime Suspect” writes in plain script, “The Closer” in big block letters.) Not many American cop shows, broadcast or cable, have engaged with reality as directly as “Prime Suspect” — and the best of those were produced not in Hollywood, but in Baltimore:  “Homicide: Life on the Street,” “The Corner,” and “The Wire.”

(click here to continue reading The problem with American remakes of British shows – Prime Suspect – Salon.com.)

Coincidentally, Netflixed the entire 7 seasons of Prime Suspect recently, and enjoyed them immensely. I doubt very seriously it will translate into American-style television drama. Maybe if it was on HBO, maybe, but certainly not on NBC. The remake may turn out to be ok, but it will not be anything like the Helen Mirren classic, which you should watch if you haven’t. Or re-watch if it has been a while…

Helen Mirren’s Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, the only female DCI on an old boy’s club London homicide squad, is like a phantom lurking around the edges of the action while the men rush through their latest murder case, joshing and winking in the kind of male camaraderie the cop genre has celebrated for decades. When DCI Shefford dies of a sudden heart attack, Tennison demands to take over. Despite her superintendent’s resistance (“Give her this case and she’ll start expecting more.”), she becomes the squad’s first woman to head a murder investigation. Scrutinized at every moment by her superior officers, Tennison is faced with a case that spirals out from a single murder to a serial spree, a second-in-command who undermines her authority and her investigation at every turn, a team resistant to taking orders from a woman, and a private life unraveling due to her professional diligence. Lynda La Plant’s script is a compelling thriller riddled with ambiguity that turns dead ends, blind alleys, and the mundane legwork of real-life cops into fascinating details. Mirren commands the role of Tennison with authority, intelligence, and a touch of overachieving desperation. Superb performances, excellent writing, and understated direction make this BBC miniseries one of the most involving mysteries in years. Look for future British stars Ralph Fiennes and Tom Wilkinson in supporting roles.

Written by Seth Anderson

February 9th, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Posted in Arts,Film,Suggestions

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