Saturday, September 24, 2011

This Ain't Your Older Sisters Prime Suspect...

So, dear unreaders, I actually watched one of the crop on "new" shows on American television this week, NBC's adaptation of yet another British television show, ITV's seminal Prime Suspect.

The original Prime Suspect ran from 1991 to 1996 and from 2003 to 2006 on Britain's commercial broadcaster ITV. Prime Suspect's main protagonist was Jane Tennison played by the great Helen Mirren, the first DCI in London's Metropolitan Police Service. Up against an old boy's network Tennison has to push and shove for everything she gets, including her first case, a case she gets after the detective in charge dies of a heart attack in the midst of the investigation. Tennison as written (the first series by Prime Suspect creator Lynda La Plante also creator of the wonderful, at least during its first and equally feminist series, Widows) and as played by Mirren is portrayed warts and all. She is sometimes pushy, because she has to be to make it in an old boy's world, she has family problems, and she is, as we see in later series, an alcoholic.

The new Prime Suspect was developed by Alexandra Cunningham whose resume includes Desperate Housewives, NYPD Blue, Fastlane, and Rome, and stars Maria Bello as Jane Timoney a tough as nails female cop trying to make it it a man's world. It debuted on NBC on Thursday 22 September 2011 to some 6 million viewers according to the website TV by the Numbers, ratings that may suggest that NBC's latest adaptation of a British show, which is this week up against the mediocre Mentalist and that mediocre fantasy show Grey's Anatomy, may be destined for that ever growing dust pile of American TV shows headed for cancellation and that aren't on the CW where 2 million plus viewers will get you renewal. American TV is, after all, dominated by commodity aestheticism, the notion that it ain't good if it don't get the viewing numbers and, as a result, advertising dollars. TV by the Numbers, of course, is a shill for this commodity aestheticism, inc.

So what did I think of the new Prime Suspect? I thought it paled in comparison to the original in a number of ways all of which are revealing about the increasing irrelevance of American television. The great thing about ITV's Prime Suspect is that, except for series four which was divided into three 100 or so minute episodes, most episodes of Prime Suspect clocked in at around 200 minutes plus. This meant that viewers like me who enjoy a good mystery and great acting could savour the plot and savour the acting of some of Great Britain's finest like a fine slow cooked meal. It also meant that there was often a degree of ambiguity built into each episode. The first series, for instance, played on viewer ambiguity as to whether the prime suspect in that episode, George Marlow, played with superb ambiguity by John Bowe, really was guilty.

There is no time for savouring the American Prime Suspect, reveling in its acting, or enjoying its ambiguities. The American version, after all, only has forty or so minutes to get from crime to suspect to the capture of that (right) prime suspect. It is the television equivalent of the male wham bam thank you ma'am sex mentality and McDonald's fast food.

The pilot of the American Prime Suspect (and I know I shouldn't judge an entire show on the basis of one episode but it often times works with US TV) was OK but it was not the British Prime Suspect. Given that it is an adaptation of the original British series comparison here is unavoidable. It is simply not as well acted, not as well written, though it did borrow several plot points from series one of the British series, nor as important and seminal as Prime Suspect (and earlier Morse and later Cracker) was for ITV and for British television. In the world after Scully and Buffy, in fact, it seems rather passe. I am not sure I will watch the US Prime Suspect next week. What I am sure of, however, is that this latest adaptation of an adult British TV show makes me yearn for the great writing, superb acting, fascinating arcs, and ambiguites of X-Files, at least for its first five seasons, and Buffy, again at least for its first five seasons. Whatever happened to the second golden age of US television?

Postscript:
I watched the second episode of the American Prime Suspect and I liked it better than I did the first. It was much less indebted to the British version and while still following slavishly the good old wham bam thank you ma'am formula that dominates American television these days, it wasn't bad. I actually enjoyed it even if I wasn't moved by it. I particularly liked it that the episode portrayed the cops warts and all and that it wasn't your standard caricatured and stereotyped portrayal of a child molester. Still it wasn't the British Prime Suspect, a programme to savour and revel in rather than to have quickly pass before your eyes and quickly out of mind.

1 comment:

  1. In my experience rarely remakes of any kind are as good as the original. And when it comes to subtlety US programs don't match UK ones.

    I read your opinion with interest. I have never watched the seminal British show, and haven't watched the American one yet. I will force myself to, but on paper it was the kind of show I'd avoid like the plague, done well or not.

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