NBC’s “Prime Suspect” likely faced a tougher room from the TCA than they will from audiences this fall, when it airs Thursdays at 10. After all, if you were to do a demographic breakdown of the audience for the original British “Prime Suspect” when it aired on PBS in the ’90s, a large chunk of it would be made up of TV critics. The vast majority of viewers sampling the new version, with Maria Bello as an abrasive New York cop battling sexism and her own personal demons, probably have no idea there was an earlier version starring the great Helen Mirren.
But American “Prime Suspect” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham is acutely aware, in part because she was an enormous fan of the various miniseries featuring Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.
“I have watched so many times I could act them out for you,” she told critics.
And as the guardian of this material, Cunningham is going to have to walk a bunch of narrow lines, most of them somewhere between changing things up enough that original fans aren’t bored and keeping enough that it still feels like “Prime Suspect.”
So Bello’s Detective Jane Timony will battle sexism, but it won’t be as overt as what Tennison dealt with 20 years earlier. In the version of the pilot critics have seen, the sexism is incredibly overt, but Cunningham says that will change quickly, because sexism in 2011 is subtler, and because women of today have more professional recourses to deal with it.
Where Tennison smoked like a chimney – “I think in one scene, she’s smoking and eating chips at the same time,” Cunningham said – and was a raging alcoholic, Timony will be constantly trying to quit smoking, and will drink a lot but not to the point of addiction.
“I feel like we’ve seen alcoholic cops a lot,” Cunningham explained. “Obviously, 20 years ago it was groundbreaking – especially to see a woman drinking that much as a cop.” But after Tennison herself, Andy Sipowicz, Tommy Gavin, Abby Lockhart, etc., primetime has seen its fair share of prominent alcoholics. “Every cop I know who’s not actively in AA, the drinking is just part of their everyday life, and a way that they cope. It’ll be part of the show, but I don’t know that we’ll show our Jane descending into alcoholism in the same way.”
The remake was developed by “Friday Night Lights” producers Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey, and Berg said one of their goals after five years of great reviews and minimal ratings from “FNL” was, “If we’re going to enter into this experience again, we want people to watch the show.” So the show will present a standalone mystery each week, while trying to keep fans of more serialized shows happy with the ongoing stories it tells about the personal lives of Jane and the other detectives in her squad.
Asked whether she might be able to do some multiple-part mysteries akin to the original, Cunningham referred to the new head of NBC entertainment, saying, “That would be a question for Mr. Greenblatt. Hopefully, going forward we’ll start doing B-stories that take more than one episode to solve… But we want fans of procedurals to feel they got a satisfying experience” within each hour.
As for Bello, she saw the Mirren series years ago, “But when I read this script, it was such a different sort of show, because of the humor and the way it’s modernized and set in New York City. I haven’t gone back and watched” the original.
When a critic brought up the inevitable comparisons, Bello said that “Prime Suspect” creator Lynda La Plante had sent them a “lovely” letter, which Cunningham said she would have gladly read to us if it wasn’t “at the framers.”
“She really was so complimentary about Maria,” Cunningham said. “She couldn’t be happier Maria is shouldering the character now.”
Oddly, the question of Timony’s hat – a black porkpie she wears in virtually every on-the-job scene – seemed almost as controversial in the session as any changes being made to the source material, but Bello insisted, “I feel like it’s my magic hat. When I put it on, I was this character.”
(Cunningham also noted that when she visited various NYPD detective squads to do research, “I was surprised by the number of fedoras,” which she attributed to being the only fashion statement most of the men can make.)
There’s also the matter of the many hard-edged female cop characters who have appeared in Tennison’s wake.
“I’m lucky enough to have the source material that a lot of those people were copying from,” Cunningham said. “Jane Tennison: strong, rude, selfish… All these things that make a great character, but also have Maria to do a brand-new version of it.
“There’s so much great stuff in there we obviously want to use as touchstones to make our show great,” she also said. “It’s great to have such fantastic source material as a skeleton that I can rely on no matter what.”