Requiem for a dead cop show: Why I’ll miss ‘Prime Suspect’

The cold, hard truth of the TV business is that most new shows fail, and fail relatively quickly. But the kinds of early failures can vary.

First and foremost, you have your shows that deserved to fail, and conveniently did so. This season, for instance, the only people mourning the ends of “The Playboy Club” and “How to Be a Gentlemen” are the ones who worked on them (and maybe not even all of them). Bad idea and/or execution, and no one’s going to miss it.

On the opposite end of the extreme you have those shows that spring into the world fully-formed, but that for one reason or another don’t click with audiences. That kind of failure stings for the small group of people who watched, but at least they have a perfect collection of episodes to watch again and again on video. (My “Freaks and Geeks” DVDs and “Terriers” downloads say hi.)

In between you have all the shows that weren’t terrible, but weren’t instantly great, either. Maybe there’s unrealized potential, maybe parts of it work and others don’t, but it never really clicked and the people involved would probably be better served doing something else. ABC’s “Mr. Sunshine” (yay) comes to mind.

And then there are the shows that are just starting to work out the bugs and become really, genuinely good when the plug gets pulled. “Journeyman” was one of those a few seasons back, where it took off creatively shortly before cancellation. And “Prime Suspect” -which isn’t on NBC’s mid-season schedule and is essentially a dead show walking – looks like another one of those. It became great, but only after almost everyone stopped paying attention.

You may remember that in my column on the series pilot, I was frustrated at having to review something that even the show’s producers said wasn’t representative of the series to follow. The pilot was an hour of a bunch of cartoonish male cops snarling and hurling over-the-top sexist barbs at Maria Bello’s Jane Timoney. It was kind of unbearable, despite a strong lead performance by Bello and a good sense of place courtesy of director Peter Berg.

But Berg and head writer Alexandra Cunningham had already promised that the focus of the series moving forward wouldn’t be on the sexism, but on life in an NYPD detective squad. And they’ve been true to their words. Timoney still gets grief from her colleagues, but it has much more to do with her abrasive personality than her gender. When the show has dealt with sexism, it’s been in a more nuanced way, like how Brian F. O’Byrne’s Reg Duffy can’t stand Timoney but bends over backwards to be friendly to a more overtly feminine, flirtatious detective from another precinct.

And the material about the culture of the squad – full of insults and inside jokes and shared fears and pleasures – has been terrific. Many cop shows promise to be as much about the characters as about the stories, but very few accomplish that. “Prime Suspect” did it. It recognized that the people and the atmosphere can be just as important as finding out whodunnit, if not more. I mentioned the scene below a while back as the series’ Eureka moment. It’s plot-driven, in that it’s the point where Jane and friends figure out how to get around their suspect’s alibi, but at the same time it’s about how the three detectives relate to each other, and it’s about finding unexpected comedy in a dark, dark job:

The more I watched, the more “Prime Suspect” began to remind me of one of my all-time favorite cop shows “NYPD Blue,” which also occupied that tricky middle ground between “CSI” and “The Wire.” It told mystery stories in a way that actually made me care about the outcomes, while at the same time recognizing that the chief lure is the chance to watch the cops interact with each other.

Last week’s episode, in which Jane tapped into her own memories of being the daughter of a violent alcoholic mother to help solve a case, was the strongest yet. The series did itself no favors by borrowing the title (and some stories) from the classic ’90s British series with Helen Mirren, but by the time I got done watching Jane talk a confession out of the mom who beat her pre-schooler to death, I wasn’t thinking of this “Prime Suspect” as anything but its own, excellent show.

Unfortunately, no one’s noticed the improvement. The show debuted to terrible ratings – you can blame cop drama fatigue, or the visceral reaction some people had to the black Trilby hat Bello wore in every ad, or the larger problem of being a new show on NBC – and then gradually slipped down to unacceptable ratings. So it’s not on the mid-season schedule, and production will reportedly shut down after the 13th episode is shot, even though NBC refuses to call it canceled yet. (Somewhere, some former CBS executive is still insisting that “Enos” hasn’t officially been canceled; they’re just keeping their options open about its future.)

I’d lament the way the show debuted with what turned out to be a very non-representative episode as the reason for its demise, but not enough people watched the pilot for that to ultimately matter. So “Prime Suspect” will play out the string, keep doing its job for as long as it’s on the schedule, and then go the way of so many, many, many failed rookie TV shows before it.

But I’m glad I got to see it, and that it figured itself out along the way. The TV show that starts off weakly and gains in strength can be among the most satisfying to discover – and the most frustrating when it’s canceled.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at