To understand my disappointment with Prime Suspect, you have to understand how much I was looking forward to this series. It’s a gritty, NBC procedural starring the incomparable Maria Bello—where could it possibly go wrong? As it turns out, all over the place. While Prime Suspect’s pilot was far from the worst we've seen in this very mixed fall season, it’s so unimpressive that it might not merit repeat viewing. At the very least, that’s a shame.
At worst, it’s embarrassing. How did Prime Suspect’s first episode, which aired Thursday night, so thoroughly fail to live up to my expectations? My main issue is that, despite being promoted as an innovative reboot of the original British series, Prime Suspect is a completely predictable assemblage of police procedural tropes. Opening shot of the female detective running? Check. Use of a song by The Black Keys? Check. (Two of them!) Red herring suspect? Sexism in the office? Children who saw too much? It’s all there. I could go on, but you get the idea: There is nothing new about Prime Suspect, aside from the casting of Maria Bello. And frankly, she could do much better.
The character of Jane Timoney is perhaps the biggest cliché of them all: She’s a tough-as-nails detective who has to work extra hard to earn the respect of her male colleagues. She prioritizes her job above everything else. Oh, and even though she seems like a total hard-ass, she still crumbles in the privacy of her boyfriend’s arms.
It’s not just obvious—it’s insulting. For most of Prime Suspect’s pilot, Jane was merely unlikeable, but once she started crying, she turned into a stereotype. While she seems like a strong, assertive woman, she still just needs to be held sometimes. It’s gross, and the climactic scene made it even worse. Jane was getting the crap beat out of her by a suspect, until the male detectives showed up and fought him off. She’s not exactly the damsel in distress, but she might as well be.
Here’s the thing: It’s important for TV characters to be somewhat sympathetic. The rare exception, Dr. House, works because Hugh Laurie is so charming when he’s mean. Jane isn’t funny or even bitter in a particularly interesting way—she’s just kind of awful. You know what? Rushing into your boss’s office to ask for the job of an officer who died a few hours ago is a dick move. It doesn’t show impressive backbone or drive, and it made Jane look uncaring. But it was even worse to see her collapse in tears after her co-workers were mean to her, because now she has two frustrating character types to contend with: soulless career cop and delicate flower. There is a middle ground to be explored, and characters with a believable balance of positive and negative qualities are far more interesting and relatable.
I say “believable” because so little of Prime Suspect is. The bloody crime scene at the beginning suggested this will be a dark, unflinching series. Everything that came after it was heavy-handed enough to be on par with the weakest episodes of Law & Order: SVU. The writing is just too obvious, particularly the ham-fisted conversations about men versus women. I’m certain sexism still exists in police departments—I think it would be naïve to say otherwise—but there are subtler ways to portray it. Loudly suggesting Jane slept her way to the top at every turn is just silly.
Maybe Prime Suspect will find a more original voice, and a better way to showcase Bello, who deserves to be playing a character with more complexity. I can’t say I feel very confident after watching the promo for the rest of the season, which includes the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me line, “For Jane, it’s not about making friends.” I can’t wait to find out what happens when homicide detectives stop being polite—and start getting real.