Opinion: Prime Suspect(s)

In The Beginning

In 1991, Helen Mirren introduced a UK television audience to her character of DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) Jane Tennison in the made-for-television movie entitled Prime Suspect.  Jane is a female police detective fighting to be noticed in a profession (and a time period) that doesn’t yet appreciate what her gender can bring to the table.

This murder and large crime investigation series played itself out as several 3hr+ movies, each tackling a different crime/case.

The Tennison character is an interesting one to dig into as an audience because you essentially get two seemingly different personalities for the price of one.  There’s the domestic, away from work Jane, and the version of her on the job.

At work, Tennison is a person on the defensive.  She’s portrayed as an oft-times cold, overly ambitious, and career minded persona to her male co-horts. Someone who’s work related aims are paramount.  Some of it seems justified, but much of it initially leaves the audience unsympathetic to her situation.  At least in the beginning.

The home version of Jane is awkward, even clumsy at times, and emotionally unsure of herself.  Really kind of the polar opposite of her work self.

Then The Americans Came

Fast-forward to 2011 and NBC airs its remake attempt of the series; this time starring Maria Bello in the role of the female lead, and also with the added difference of being a full blown television series, rather than the movie format.

The pilot episode of this version has many similarities to the original, but with just as many subtle yet significant differences.  Differences that go beyond the new American setting and the character name changes.  First of course, let’s talk about the similarities.

Maria Bello’s version of the character (renamed Jane Timoney) is also a woman in a male dominated work environment.  Her co-workers speculate that she’s slept her way to her position and in both shows, the male crew “steal” cases from Jane – to what end? I’m not sure.  It’s never really explained on either show why the detectives are so competitive about being lead on cases.  You just have to accept that reality.  Bottom line, on both shows the males seem to be proactively motivated to undermine their only female colleague.

Another similarity between the two show’s Janes is the compartmentalization of personality between home and work life.  Both Janes seem to have decided that showing the emotional part of themselves with their co-workers is a bad thing.  Both on the original show, we find out only after Jane is in the home environment how hurt she is by some of her co-workers behaviour.  Ironically, both series try to stress that the emotional component of (and just generically) the female species helps a great deal when doing (for example) investigations.  Each show illustrates this in its own way, with varying degrees of success.

Same, but Different

The differences are where the shows begin to set themselves apart.  That was redundant; anyway the changes are relatively minor, but with pretty large repercussions for the characters and overall feel of each piece.

The 90s show plays it a bit corny, with Mirren’s Jane as a bit of a girly girl.  As an example, earlier in the story when Jane is finally given the promotion and recognition she’s been brooding for; we see Jane pump her fist and quietly exclaim YES! — corny right?  She then turns to ball breaker Jane and walks in to the meeting room to address the men.

On the other end, Maria Bello’s Jane is pretty somber about the promotion and her first reaction is to get right to business.  No emotional fanfare or outward celebration.  Her co-workers still don’t like her and she knows it. Her physicality sells that to us.  She knows getting the promotion isn’t enough, she’ll need to prove her worth on the job.  Again, as with the Mirren original, Bello reveals her true feelings about things when she’s away from the prying eyes of her colleagues.

Another example has Jane in the original show interviewing possible witnesses and suspects.  Through dialog and her character’s unique female perspective, Jane is able to steer the case she’s just been assigned in a different direction and ultimately to the right conclusion.  For instance, the case she’s working on (the new NBC series also uses this case as a starting point for its pilot, though the details and ultimate ending are changed) involves a murdered and bound woman, found in an apartment.  The impression is given that the male counterparts are more interested in closing cases than bringing the right people to justice.  As a result, a lot of sloppy work is done and they arrest the first person they find who seems to match the profile and evidence as they’ve gathered it.  When Jane takes over, she immediately finds evidence that was missed that seems to clear our recently arrested patsy.  Two major findings actually.

One of those findings is the fact that the female victim that’s been found was identified based on the apartment she was discovered in. The men on the case assumed that the name on the lease belonged to the only person in that place, the dead body.  Jane very quickly proves that to have been in error because she notices that the shoes the victim was wearing were not only a different foot size from those in the apartment closet, but also (along with the clothes being worn) inconsistent with the pedigree and character of the rest of the wardrobe.  This along with other corroborating evidence, lead to the conclusion that the woman was not only NOT who they thought she was originally, but also due to her background was probably not even from that area. Thus exonerating the already arrested suspect.

On the Bello show, Jane also discovers that the case she’s been assigned was very sloppily investigated.  In this shows instance, Jane finds a link between the case she’s working and that of a serial rapist case another team is on.  The link had previously been dismissed because of the different m.o., that of only targeting and raping single women living alone. This particular murder victim was married with children.  Jane’s hypothesis ultimately turns out to be right, but also not before the wrong person was arrested and humiliated by her co-workers.

So, in both cases the two Janes bring a level head to the job where the men had become complacent in their work and seemingly forgotten their roles as investigators.  To investigate. The differences in the women’s approaches make a big difference in how the audience perceives each from show to show.  You have the corniness and overtly feminine version, and the one of the guys (with heart) of the current version.  If you’re yet to see either show, you may not completely get how different they each play out, but trust me…the tone completely changes.  I’d even go so far as to say that modern audiences may not even enjoy the original because of how silly certain moments appear to be.

Interestingly Lynda La Plante, the writer of the Mirren original is also the principal on the new NBC version.  I have to believe though that the increase in writers afforded by the American filmmaking system has shaped the character beyond any input Lynda might bring.

Ultimately, I think the modern take is a more believable scenario.  At least from a cinematic standpoint.  It doesn’t try as hard to spoon feed the audience on the plight of gender; and from personal experience working with women in male dominated industry, it’s a more accurate take on how they behave and the types of personalities they exhibit.

It’s not often that we get to see a remake that improves on the original.  It could quite easily have degenerated into a further caricature of the themes of the original, but I’m very happy it didn’t.  A show of this sort can’t help, but be a little preachy.  This one does it without a mallet.  I appreciate it.  Look it up.  Recommended.


Original surviving founder of Fanboy Confidential, the podcast, and this supporting website. This is the fruit of his labor, created while on his off days from saving orphaned children from forest fires.

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