Prime Suspect

Comparing Suspects: Female Empowerment

Last week, I wrote about how the BBC "Prime Suspect" airing on KCET doesn't exactly match up with NBC's revamped version. In short, the BBC version runs longer and goes deeper, allowing viewers to witness even the smallest developments in a given episode's investigation. It's now three of four episodes in, and Helen Mirren still hasn't closed the case. Over in the New York of the American "Prime Suspect," however, the female protagonist is already on her third case. But the radically different story set-up still allows for parallels.

For example, viewers watching Wednesday's airing of the Helen Mirren miniseries got to see Jane Tennison do something she hasn't got a chance to do yet: have a moment with the girls. Sure, the girls are London prostitutes and she's only having drinks with them in order to pump them for information about a murder, but it was still a moment when this female detective escaped her testosterone-enriched office life and got to speak with people who don't consider her gender to be such an oddity. (Also, she was briefly mistaken as a prostitute herself, which, in a sad way, is the best affirmation of her femininity in the series so far.)

The NBC "Prime Suspect" approached girl-on-girl action in a different way. While looking into this week's murder -- the third female corpse in three weeks, it should be noted -- Maria Bello's Det. Jane Timoney crossed paths with another female detective. Notably, this character manages to get her subordinate officers to fetch her lattes, and she actually encourages them to watch her ass as she struts away. Timoney is simultaneously annoyed and awed by this display, in which an up-and-coming lady cop manages to both overpower and submit to the men around her, much to their delight. In one scene, she asks a male officer what it is they like about the new gal. His response? "Beautiful woman, doesn't have a chip on her shoulder, great smile, laughs at people's jokes." In short, she's appealing, whereas Timoney isn't. In fact, she's more like the episode's title, "Bitch." (Surely, that's what her sexist cop colleagues call her behind her back.)

The thing is, Timoney isn't a bitch. She's a smart, shrewd detective whose knack for investigations literally makes her one of New York's finest. Less a re-envisioning of Mirren's character, Timoney comes more from the mold of the socially awkward and often misunderstood Dr. House or Dr. Temperance Brennan from "Bones," so focused on their jobs that they simply can't find the time for social niceties. Mirren's Tennison is focused, sure, but her isolation seems to come more from the sexually restrictive atmosphere of early '90s England. Our American heroine, however, seems to be the force that isolates her from her colleagues.

Thankfully, the sexism was large downplayed this week as Timoney sought out a murderer. The victim this time is a Claudia Ward, a woman who one character notes a great deal like Timoney herself. (This, we can assume, was written to underscore Timoney's vulnerability: She's physically not all that different from the people whose murders she ends up investigating.) Timoney and her fellow officers immediately zero in on the dead woman's husband, Malcolm (Mackenzie Astin, playing a role starkly different than his previous long-running one on the later seasons of "The Facts of Life"). Hubby, however, has an alibi and so Timoney looks into the furniture maker who was once the woman's male mistress. (Shouldn't there be a male version of "mistress" that's not "mister"?) The killer stashed her body in a dumpster near the guy's house, and the tools he uses to build furniture could easily also be the instruments that beat the victim to death. Obviously, he's the new prime suspect, but it soon turns out that the rendezvous he had with the woman was a tense one, of the "goodbye forever" variety.

Ultimately, Timoney ends up turning her attention back to the husband, Malcolm, likely suspecting that his unassuming, Clark Kentish manner hides a sort of violent Superman, and a visit to his mother (played by Eileen Ryan, a.k.a. Sean Penn's mom) reveals that Claudia was not the woman she wanted him to marry. In fact, he was once engaged to a Casey who promptly disappeared. A pop-in reveals that Malcolm does, in fact, have a violent and controlling side that ultimately drove Casey away. And a scientific test of Malcolm's alibi for the period around Claudia's death -- he was allegedly in a restaurant, waiting for her -- falls apart when a crosstown footrace among detectives reveals that Malcolm could have checked into the restaurant, dashed out to dump Claudia's body and the hoofed it back in time to avoid suspicion.

Knowing this, Timoney lures Malcolm back to the police station under the not-exactly-false pretense of good news about the investigation. After getting a hearty thumbs up from the very male colleagues who one week ago treated her like dirt, she corners Malcolm into an interrogation room where thrusts autopsy photos in front of him. He doesn't budge until she also produces a sonogram, which she presents as evidence that Claudia was pregnant at the time Malcolm killed her. "Bitch!" she shouts, with the scene going to an ad break immediately after, during what we're instructed is his confession to his wife's murder.

Clearly, since the killer is one who said it, "bitch" is a term that only a terrible person would use to describe Det. Timoney. She's a tough lady -- and a detective not above using a ploy such as a phony sonogram to elicit a murder confession from a suspect -- but to call her a "bitch" degrades her character as a female taking a measure of authority that she shouldn't be allowed. And that's not the case. Timoney is awkward, pessimistic, sharp and jaded, and she has as much claim to these qualities as any man. In that sense, more than any other, Timoney is a lot like Mirren's Tennison. And they both come to these faults honestly, as any human would, completely independent of their gender. 

NBCThis week, NBC canceled its supposed "female empowerment" show, "The Playboy Club," and in its place it will be running repeats of "Prime Suspect" in an effort to increase the latter's audience. In a way, this move is remarkably appropriate: it's subbing out a fraudulently feminist series with one whose underlying theme is that a woman can do any job that a man can do -- just as well, if not better. While Mirren's Tennison might not grant her approval to the rock outros and over-the-top sexism of NBC's "Prime Suspect," she'd at least be pleased a woman in a sensible outfit doing good, honest police work. Let's hope TV watchers agree and that Timoney gets to move on to matters even more deserving of the title "Prime Suspect."