The pilot episode of NBC’s “Prime Suspect” (it debuts tonight at 10) spends almost as much time showing its heroine, NYPD detective Jane Timoney (Maria Bello) battling rampant sexism from her colleagues than it does on her work investigating murders. The jump ahead of her in the queue to catch the next case, try to stick her with the gruntiest of gruntwork, accuse her of having slept her way to the top and mock her to her face at least as much as they do behind her back.
Ordinarily, a pilot episode is a template for what the ongoing series will look like, but the “Prime Suspect” producers have said they’re going to seriously cool it on the sexism starting in the second episode.
“Obviously, it’s 2011,” showrunner Alexandra Cunningham acknowledged to a roomful of critics last month. “There”s no institutionalized sexism. There”s human resources. Women have recourse at work when things happen.” She added that the show would “Try to make it more realistic, because sexism isn”t gone. It”s kind of more subtle and insidious in a modern world and that”s what we”re going to try to do.”
On the one hand, Cunningham’s answer was welcome, because by far the biggest problem in this pilot was the almost cartoonish degree of sexism that Timoney faces. “Prime Suspect” is based on the groundbreaking ’90s British drama of the same name, which starred the great Helen Mirren. And as Cunningham says, sexism at the workplace has evolved significantly (if not disappeared) in the 20 or so years since Mirren first put on the badge, and the disgust that the American “Prime Suspect” men show for their Jane could just as easily come from her abrasive personality as from their lack of desire to let an icky girl into their private club. There’s an obvious flaw in the pilot, and it’s one that Cunningham, director Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights”) and company have recognized and promised to fix moving forward.
All of which is great, except when it comes to trying to pass any kind of critical judgment on the series based on what sounds like a very non-representative sample.
So if we take the overt sexist pig stuff out of the equation, what’s left to judge from the “Prime Suspect” pilot?
Most obviously, there’s Maria Bello, stepping into some mighty big shoes – albeit shoes that most American viewers have never seen before. The original “Prime Suspect”s aired here on PBS, the first way back in 1992, and for most of the viewers who tune into NBC tonight, the female TV cop she’ll be judged against won’t be Tennison, but Brenda Leigh Johnson from “The Closer,” or Olivia Benson from “Law & Order: SVU,” or Grace Hanadarko on “Saving Grace,” or any of the other American characters who owe a major debt to Tennison. (American viewers as a whole may not be that familiar with “Prime Suspect,” but American cop show producers can quote it chapter and verse.)
And along that continuum, I think Bello holds up very well. Timoney’s not especially pleasant to work with even if you’re not a member of the He-Man Woman Hater’s Club – a fellow detective, played by Kirk Acevedo from “Fringe,” asks, “You ever worry that someone might drop a house down on you?” – but Bello and Cunningham’s script do a good job of showing how that rough edge helps drive her forward, and makes her a good investigator, if not someone you want to go out for a beer with. (She has a live-in boyfriend, played by Kenny Johnson – a variation on the same role he played on “Saving Grace,” no less – with whom she seems a bit softer, but only just.)
Bello builds much of the performance’s physicality around the black Trilby hat that Timoney favors. It’s not just a fashion accessory, but a prop she uses to calm herself, or psych herself up, or alter her mood in whatever way she needs for her next interaction. (At the same press conference where Cunningham explained the changes to the series, critics almost seemed more interested in discussing the hat than the inevitable Helen Mirren questions.) I like the hat, or at least how it’s used.
Beyond Bello, though, and some effective direction by Berg – a great action director who stages an adrenaline-pumping chase/fight scene as the pilot’s climax – there’s not much there to offer a hint of how the show might work. With the exception of Aidan Quinn as Timoney’s sympathetic but often-frustrated boss, all of her co-workers – notably Brian F. O’Byrne’s character – are so vehemently sexist in general and anti-Timoney in particular that they’re going to need significant retooling starting with next week’s episode. And the main case Timoney works – a home invasion murder in a ritzy townhouse – isn’t particularly memorable.
“Prime Suspect” aims to be the kind of character-driven procedural that the broadcast networks largely stopped doing after the “CSI” and “Law & Order” franchises really exploded. If Jane Timoney continues to be an interesting character – and if the characters around her become three-dimensional enough to stand plausibly with or against her – then this could hearken back not only to the original “Prime Suspect,” but “NYPD Blue,” “Homicide,” etc. But that’s just a wild guess right now, based on what sounds like an extremely non-representative pilot.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com