Ricky Gervais is to Steve Carrell as Helen Mirren is to... Maria Bello? Yes is the answer to this little analogy test, because Bello has now stepped into the sensible (yet still feminine) shoes that Mirren so courageously wore as the lead of the BBC series "Prime Suspect."
It's hard not to make comparisons between "The Office" and "Prime Suspect," because both flew overseas to land on NBC's Thursday night line-up. Furthermore, Bello's Det. Jane Timoney isn't out of place in the company of sitcom protagonists Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope. They're all smart, tough women trying to balance their work lives with whatever personal fulfillment they can sniff out.
From the first moments of the new "Prime Suspect" we learn that Bello's Timoney is a very different character than Mirren's Jane Tennison. She's jogging in Central Park, clearly standing apart from the dog-walking yoga moms in the background and sweating in a way that Mirren's character generally doesn't.
It's brighter than Mirren's London, lighting-wise, though the scene isn't upbeat -- It's the kind of bright, midday light that lets you see New York City corruption more clearly, natch. And unlike Mirren's Tennison, who smokes throughout the first episode of "Prime Suspect," Timoney, we learn, has just quit.
She picked a baaaaad week to give up cigarettes, because the NYPD homicide squad is looking into an especially violent murder-rape. This crime mirrors the one that kicks off the BBC "Prime Suspect," though the camera lingers a bit longer on the dead woman's bloodied body in the American version. Timoney is especially displeased with this crime, because a lead investigator is already at work on the case when she arrives -- We imagine her inner dialogue said something like, "hey, that's my murder-rape! No fair!"
Peeved that she's been passed over for the lead in this case, Timoney marches into the office of her boss, Lt. Kevin Sweeney (Aidan Quinn), and demands the work that should rightfully be hers. He consents: She'll get the next case, but in the meantime, she'll have to prove to the boys in the office that she's a team player, her gender notwithstanding.
Taking Sweeney's words to heart, Timoney offers her services to one of the detectives. His response? "Sure! Drive yourself over to Brooklyn to fetch the personal effects of this perp we just nabbed!" It's hardly the hard-hitting crimefighting that Timoney (or, you know, the audience) expects.
The officers gather for the morning's briefings, and a detective from SVU -- no, not that SVU -- discusses an ongoing series of rapes in the general vicinity of the episode's main homicide. Timoney, ever astute, points out that despite some key differences in the modus operandi, the rapist could also be responsible for the murder. Her theory is met with disbelief by the SVU cop and outright derision by her colleagues in homicide, who essentially tell her that they're not interested in hearing someone who seems to have earned her job as a result of sleeping with her superior.
Now, here's an especially prominent difference between this first installment of the U.S. "Prime Suspect" and its U.K. counterpart: The latter introduces the sexism against Tennison as being just merely for sexism's sake. The American version immediately rolls the sexism in with the erroneous belief that Timoney unjustly got her job. It's an interesting choice, artistically, and perhaps one that resulted from the fact that an NYPD office in 2011 is more socially progressive than a Scotland Yard station in 1991. The boys' hatred of her would have to be grounded from the get-go in something other than her gender.
The keyword of the exchange is "beef trust," which is less the crude sexual euphemism you might expect. The term, an Upton Sinclair coinage, seems to refer to the dudes willing to take on less-than-glamorous jobs for the sake of the unit. "A squad is only as good as its beef trust."
The boys depart for cocktails, "Mad Men"-style in Sweeney's office, but it's there that the lead investigator keels over, apparently the victim of whatever being a chauvinist oaf does to one's heart.
After the next ad break, he's dead, and Timoney is back in Sweeney's office, demanding the man's position as lead investigator. It's ballsy -- or ovariesy -- of her. Sweeney, who clearly believes in Timoney's worth as a detective, initially seems appalled. "My friend whose baby girl turned four today? What kind of person are you that you come in on that day and ask for that man's job?" The audience then gets a breather from simmering office politics in the form of two "Hey! She's a normal woman too!" scenes -- Timoney getting grilled by her boyfriend's ex on whether their son could safely spend the night in Timoney's apartment, and then Timoney depositing her cache of rifles with her dad so her boyfriend's son cannot stumble onto them himself -- She is willing to make sacrifices, you see. Soon enough she gets the call that she is, in fact, the main investigator, in spite of and because of her steel-hard ovaries.
She launches into her own investigation, which begins with eliminating the previous investigator's prime suspect -- hey, that's the title! -- on grounds that he wouldn't have raped her since his multiple convictions for solicitation have been with male prostitutes. That's something the other guys missed but Timoney, a former vice cop trained in neighborhoods haunted by hustlers, knew right away.
She revisits the victim's children -- who hid in the closet while she was murdered. An earlier interview revealed that they saw and knew nothing, but Timoney, who crawled into the closet herself and saw that quite a lot could be seen from beneath the crack under the door, tries harder. The result: a new suspect description and subsequent sketch. Afterwards, she chastises Det. Calderon ("Fringe" alum Kirk Acevedo) for his sloppy work, prompting him to come back with the least macho thing anyone says in this entire episode. "You ever worry someone is going to drop a house on you?" Ooh, burn -- "Wizard of Oz"-referencing insult!
Despite the continued resistance by most of her colleagues and halfhearted help by those starting to see that she is, in fact, an adept detective, Timoney is soon speaking at a press conference, holding up the new sketch and asking for any possible leads. She gets one, in the form of a man she met earlier in the episode, while picking up the perp baggage in Brooklyn. While there, she "deputized" him, effectively transforming a resistant witness into one who would volunteer information. He does just this, telling her that one of the parolees staying in his facility recognizes the guy.
Soon enough, Timoney is racing after him on foot in the style of so many great TV cops before her (though less so the methodical Det. Tennison). He stops running, however, when he catches sight of Timoney's small frame, turns on her and beats her -- severely by NBC standards. Bloodied and on her back, Timoney's situation looks grim, until a bullet fired by a fellow detective picks the attacker of her. She's safe, if shaken, and she's reminded that it's important to earn the support of her colleagues. From down on the ground, she sputters out, "Do you have a cigarette?"
Before the end credits, we're given a shot of Timoney, bruised but draped in an evening dress, out to dinner with her boyfriend, his ex and the ex's new guy. The latter couple are still clearly uncomfortable with the thought of the son spending time in Timoney's apartment, so Timoney puts on her game face and admits she's not perfect... and then admits that they're not either, as a check on their files reveals that he's been caught breaking and entering and she's an occasional drunk driver. They suddenly reconsider their stance on what kind of home Timoney keeps.
So will Timoney stay around? She may well. The pilot shows promise, and it's removed enough from the source material to prevent it from being redundant. Jane Timoney is not Jane Tennison, for many reasons. Helen Mirren wouldn't wear skinny jeans for one, and there's a hard physicality that Bello brings to the role than Mirren, sensual as she is, does not. And this is just in the pilot. Altogether, there's simply not enough material in the original "Prime Suspect" series for every moment in this U.S. remake to draw from. Bello's Timoney will get original plot lines, and further evolve into her own character, not unlike Michael Scott did on "The Office." (This evolution will probably not be as funny, FYI.) But anyone feeling the need not just for another crime procedural but one with a real vibe propelling the action may well want to check out Timoney next week, even if just to play detectives themselves and search for traces of Helen Mirren.