When digging through Hulu, which has a pretty poor interface for discovering content, and I say that comparing it to a field of apps that are all pretty bad at that, I stumbled upon the entire Prime Suspect collection. Having watched the original back when it premiered in the US in early 1992, I decided to give it a go to see how it has stood up over time.
The series stars Helen Mirren as Detective Chief Inspector (DCI) Jane Tennison who is the only woman of that rank at her station in the London Metropolitan Police.
British crime dramas have taught me that DCI is the rank at which you personally run a major investigation into something like a murder and people are supposed to call you “Guv” or “Boss.” DCI Tennison, as the first series opens, has yet to be given her own case despite the obvious competence that got her into the otherwise male dominated command structure.
And then, in the midst of a grisly murder investigation, the DCI running it dies of a heart attack. Her superintendent’s first action is to find another male DCI from another station to step in and take over the case. Tennison points out that she is a DCI, in the building, with no current assignment, and pushes to get the case assigned to her.
She gets it, though it is clear that it is somewhat probationary and the male DCI they were considering is always just a phone call away. Meanwhile, the team she inherits is not all on board with a woman DCI either. And when the late DCI who had been running the case is found to have been hiding some evidence due to his own association with the case, her looking into that makes everybody bristle because she seems to be trying to tear down her well liked predecessor.
So it goes. But her hard work and insight win over key members of her team and, when her superintendent is pressured to replace her with the male DCI waiting in the wings because the case isn’t moving along fast enough, her teams stands up for her and the progress she has made even as she is hiding from her boss to avoid being dismissed.
This was 1991 after all. No email, no texts, no mobile phones, except for one giant car phone that is seen in the first act. You had to find somebody to talk to them.
Anyway, the ploy works, she gets a reprieve, and eventually solves the case, cementing her position as an effective DCI.
The series carries on to follow her career. It isn’t really a series in the same way that TV shows tend to be. The format for each season is generally a pair of episodes each formatted for a 2-hour block of TV time, with obvious spots for commercial breaks. A season generally follows one case in detail, though season four breaks the trend in being three episodes, each one about a different case.
The case is always murder, but the themes vary with each season, though Tennison’s struggle to maintain her place in what remains a very male dominated world from start to finish is a universal thread. She manages to be promoted to Detective Superintendent, which mean the DCIs report to her. But well groomed and correctly bred male sergeants and inspectors who serve under her early in the timeline sometimes come back as her boss or her boss’s boss as things progress.
Seasons explore immigrants, racism, gay and trans acceptance, the drug trade, street gangs, pedophilia, government corruption, and police involvement or indifference in all sorts of crime.
The show overall is a solid, gritty police procedural that focuses on the dedication and investigative work that it takes to solve a crime; not a lot of car chases or gun battles. It takes place primarily in London, though Tennison is banished to Manchester for a season and visits Bosnia for a brief bit in season six.
And, as with any British series of any length, a number of notable actors wander through including Tom Wilkinson, Peter Capaldi, Mark Strong, Ciaran Hinds, David Thewlis, Brendan Coyle, and Ralph Fiennes.
But the whole thing is carried on the shoulders of Helen Mirren’s Tennison. The character works because Tennison doesn’t bring magical female insight into the role, though a knowledge of how a woman’s body actually works is useful now and then, but is just more tenacious and hard working than anybody around her. She is as tough on herself and does the difficult tasks rather than delegating, which earns her the respect of her team.
She also has many of the issues of her male colleagues. She works long hours, can’t give up smoking, drinks too much, sleeps too little, neglects her personal and family life, makes poor choices with whom she sleeps occasionally, and generally puts the job ahead of everything in her life. She won’t play the promotion game, except through hard work and success, or work a case in a way just to please her superiors. Her affinity is with the gruff old guy who has been a detective sergeant for 20 years rather than the up and coming bright starts looking to tick the boxes on their way to higher rank.
And she doesn’t cut her female colleagues any extra slack. No sisterhood here. She opens one season trying to kick a female detective inspector off her team because she goes home at the end of the work day to be with her husband and kids rather than putting in the extra hours than Tennison does.
In season seven, when Tennison has been on the force for 30 years and the powers that be are pressuring her to retire, she does question whether it was worth it. She is 54, her mother has passed, her father is dying, her sister has a husband and a family, and all she has had is a string of short term relationships and an obvious problem with alcohol, with no real place to go if she retires. The force has been her whole focus for almost her entire adult life.
So ends her career and the force goes on looking not much different than it did when we first saw her fifteen years back, though everybody does seem to have a cell phone on them at the end.
The seven seasons run from 1991 through until 2006, with a rather significant gap between season 5 (1996) and season 6 (2003). The early seasons have been cleaned up a bit and made to work in HD.
I had only watched the first three seasons previously, but the series holds up well enough through all seven. Season four is the odd duck, as mentioned, being three episodes about three different cases. The stories are all a bit weak, even the third one, which goes back to the original season one case when some copy cat killings bring her conviction under scrutiny. But I suspect that the inability to pull together a single strong story probably necessitated the variation. Sometimes plot ideas don’t pan out.
More recently somebody went back and tried to make a prequel series, Prime Suspect: 1973, charting the rise of Jane Tennison. But not everybody needs an origin story and it lasted a single season.
So it goes.