Prime Suspect

Comparing Suspects: Nicotine Gum and Workplace Sexism

Still from Prime Suspect.The second episode of NBC's remake of "Prime Suspect" has aired, and as the sharp-eyed viewers who caught KCET's broadcast of the second episode of the BBC original should have predicted, the two shared little relation.

Whereas Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison took two full programming hours to wrap up her first case, the debut of Maria Bello's Jane Timoney -- which did mirror the BBC pilot, at least in the beginning -- concluded in just 45 minutes and with an altogether new second half. Yes, the slow boil of the original has given way to the quick turnaround of the standard American crime procedural, but diverging sharply form the source material doesn't prevent us from making comparisons.

For example, Thursday night's "Carnivorous Sheep" opens up with Timoney's early morning search for gum -- nicotine gum, in fact, as she's still trying to quit smoking. That's a clear difference between her and Mirren's Tennison, who smokes constantly -- at her desk, in her home, while perusing evidence, during times of stress and during the few easy moments her series allows her. Call it a ploy on the part of the American writers to contrast the two detectives or just credit it to the the difference between early 90s London and present day New York. Either way, our American heroine lacks a creative crutch used to great extent by her British counterpart.

Soon enough, Timoney has arrived at the scene of a new crime: A woman has been suffocated in her chic New York apartment. The murder weapon? Her own memory foam pillow. Timoney is on the scene, once again wearing what may be her signature look: a knotted scarf and a black fedora. (It's an odd costume choice, but the ensemble may be another means of differentiating her from Helen Mirren and her drab, Dana Scully-esque wardrobe.) This week's crime has the added complication of a missing child, the murder victim's daughter. And though the nanny insists that the ex-husband could not be responsible, the detectives have already ID'd him as the prime suspect.

Those of us who favor crime procedurals, however, know to guess otherwise, and apparently Timoney watches these shows too, because she thinks to look up registered sex offenders living near the scene of the crime. A chat with the nanny indicates one, Chris (David Meunier from "Justified"), but he tells detectives that he spent the night in question with his girlfriend. This week's lead investigator -- Det. Duffy (Bryan O'Byrne), whose unreasonable, sexist hatred of Timoney persists in spite of her good detective work last week -- points her in the direction of the victim's employees at the art gallery they ran. There, Timoney learns that the woman didn't have the best relationships with her artists or her employees. (Also, Dante Basco -- Rufio from "Hook" -- is there.)

Next, Timoney checks out Chris's alibi by visiting his girlfriend, Noelle (Paula Malcomson, maybe most familiar as an Other on "Lost"), who vouches for his whereabouts but clearly has no clue about Chris's pedophile past. She also has a young daughter, but Timoney opts not to reveal her suspect's secret. Duffy, now decided that Chris must be the culprit, feels differently and when he visits Noelle, he tells the whole story -- how her boyfriend years ago molested a girl around her daughter's age. Noelle, horrified by the news, tells Duffy that Chris left at one point during the night of the murder.

Now, from what KCET viewers have seen of the BBC "Prime Suspect," Tennison is not well-liked, but the detectives in her bureau at least indulge her intuition as a detective. With Timoney, even when she's proven her worth, the guys she works with still blatantly ignore her theories as a result of either complete idiocy or the writers' desire to underscore the protagonist's status as the hero. Again, the viewer has to wonder: Is this the only way the BBC series can be mashed into form of an American TV show?

Timoney continues her heroics by following up a tip from ol' Rufio about a disgruntled employee of the victim. She drops by -- apparently he lives on the set of a "Saw" movie -- and spies a child's doll on the floor. Soon enough, this man is cuffed and she's rescuing the imperiled daughter. But it's not the end of the day for our flawless heroine yet: Chris has fled a detective sent to arrest him and ended up at his girlfriend's apartment, where he holds her and her daughter hostage in a misguided effort to convince the police of his innocence. The ensuing standoff ends with Noelle and her little girl escaping, but Chris, holed up in a closet and with no way out, shooting himself just as Timoney is trying her best to talk him down.

It's a sad ending, but thickheaded Duffy doesn't get it. "Little girl rescued? Pedophile dead? They'll probably name a bridge after me," he gloats. Timoney is righteous and defiant: "I'll still know you were wrong."

In the end, this second episode didn't improve on the first, which itself didn't improve on the BBC series pilot. But it's not that NBC's "Prime Suspect" is a failed show. It has a promising lead in Maria Bello and with some tighter writing -- clearer motivation for Timoney's antagonistic coworkers and the end of Timoney's depiction as infallibly badass, for example -- "Prime Suspect" could end up being the replacement for "Law & Order" that NBC so clearly wants it to be. But if that is going to happen, then this show's writers need to take a few notes from the original, diversion notwithstanding. The workplace sexism needs to recede into the background instead of manifesting a blatant stupidity, for one, and Bello's Timoney needs to become a less idealized heroine in the mold of Mirren's Tennison. Even Americans watching a procedural can accept a protagonist with a few faults -- or even a lot of faults. I mean, hell -- people still love "House," right?