In April 1991, Helen Mirren starred for the first time as DCI Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect, a two-part, four-hour TV movie that aired on consecutive nights on ITV in the UK, and became an immediate hit, both at home and abroad. At the time—pre-Homicide, pre-Cracker, pre-NYPD Blue—Prime Suspect stood as the grittiest television procedural since the heyday of Hill Street Blues. A sequel aired the following year, and Mirren returned to play Tennison in five more series, with the last one airing in 2006. By the time the series ended, 15 years after it began, television crime stories had changed dramatically. But contemporary cop shows from CSI to The Closer (and even more offbeat offerings like Life On Mars) are all Prime Suspect’s progeny to some degree.
That first series is as riveting now as it was two decades ago. Opening with gruesome footage of a mutilated female, Prime Suspect introduces Mirren as Tennison, a veteran detective who fights for her first command after a respected officer dies in the middle of a sensational murder investigation. Tennison’s staff resents her, her boyfriend (Tom Wilkinson) is bitter that her job is getting in the way of their relationship, and the man who’s most obviously responsible for the crime—and five more besides—proves so slippery that even Tennison begins to wonder if they’ve got the right man. The acting in Prime Suspect has a natural feel, aided by moments of improvisation, and the mystery is grounded in reality, not the fantastical. The first movie combines the grim particulars of police work with multiple nuanced character studies—including the alleged villain, John Bowe, who elicits sympathy throughout, and his cocky wife, Zoë Wanamaker, who doesn’t—all while showing how Tennison’s determination gradually changes her colleagues’ minds.
Subsequent series try too hard at times to be issue-oriented, though always through the filter of a beguiling case, and always while showing Tennison as a multifaceted character, often undone by her own arrogance. (In the racially charged second series, for example, Tennison sets a bad example for her men by giving the cold shoulder to the squad’s first black detective, not because she’s a racist, but because they’re secretly having a affair, and she’s afraid she’ll be found out.) And because Prime Suspect took long breaks over the course of its 15 years, its seven series stand as a record of a UK in transition in regards to its attitudes about gender and race, as well as a record of how the show’s cast of regulars aged and matured into their roles. All told, the complete Prime Suspect box set contains 22 hours of some of the best TV ever produced, all dedicated to showing how in the job of cracking homicide cases, victories are hard-won and fleeting.
Key features: An hourlong retrospective, with some welcome insights into the history of the series and the research that went into Mirren’s performance, along with one valuable piece of advice from one of Prime Suspect’s editors: “If in doubt, cut to Helen.”