Comparing Suspects: Similar Vices

In every recap for the NBC "Prime Suspect," I've mentioned that it's not a remake or even a reboot of the BBC version so much as a whole remaining of the story of one female homicide detective and her cases in a big city. That said, there's a happy little dialogue that exists between these two works. Sure, it's mostly coincidental and I'm only seeing it because, well, I'm being paid to look for it, but it's there.

Folks who caught KCET's broadcast of the first two parts of the second series of the Helen Mirren version of the show may have noticed that last night's episode of the Maria Bello version began in a similar way: cops trying to decide what to make of a dead woman as a crowd of angry people demanded answers in a way that suggested they didn't have faith in the local law enforcement. For Mirren's Jane Tennison and her colleagues, the crowd comprised angry residents of London's Afro-Cuban neighborhood. For Bello's Jane Timoney, it was New York Latinos. And although Timoney's case only lightly touched on the subject of racial tensions -- a clear focus of the BBC "Prime Suspect" in the second series -- the educated viewer has to wonder how likely it is that the American writers are pulling away little bits, a scene here and there, from the source material and working them into this new story.

This week's episode of the NBC "Prime Suspect" offers a fairly routine murder investigation that probably could have been adapted for any one of the other crime procedurals on the air. However, it was a cop story well told nonetheless. Timoney immediately suspects that the killer is the victim's stepfather, because he's one of the enraged members of the mob in the opening sequence but he goes missing shortly thereafter.

Not even his wife, the victim's mother, knows where he is. The detectives, meanwhile, turn their focus on denizens of the park where the dead woman was found -- gang members and homeless people. But the gang members seem to be savvy enough businessmen that they wouldn't want to jeopardize the organization by killing an innocent victim. And the homeless turn out to be harmless, even if one especially inarticulate man -- who keeps rambling on about the mysterious "padiddle" moving through the woods -- thought to drape the victim's body in flowers. (It turns out to be a sign of respect, not of remorse or some sort of ceremonial kill.)

In the end, Timoney finds herself riding with one of the park staffers around in his work vehicle as she grills him for information about how many workers would have had the kind of access to the park that they could have killed someone and known where to deposit the body. That's when Timoney's gender -- a plot point that hasn't been the focus of recent episodes -- comes up again, notably in a way Tennison's hasn't. Chatting with a colleague in the office, she learns what a padiddle is: a car with one headlight. (You're driving at night, you see one headlight, you punch your buddy and say "Padiddle!" before he can. You know, for people who thought "Slugbug" was too obvious.) It's at this point, right before a commercial break, I should note, that Timoney realizes she's in the presence of a man who has brutally murdered at least one woman, and we viewers are meant to worry about her safety.

Shortly enough, Timoney proves that she has the situation under control, and her boys -- the very detectives who so shunned her as to endanger her just a short while ago -- are there, pawing through the service truck and finding murder weapons. A high point of the episode would have to be Timoney retrieving a sort of treasure box of women's jewelry that the killer had stashed away. In the presence of the victim's parents, she produces a moonstone ring that belonged to their daughter. It's hers. There are tears. Then she attempts to offer the rest. "Whose are those?" asks the grieved mother. The episode could have ended there, honestly, with Timoney's chilling realization that she bagged a serial killer, not just a one-time offender, but a superfluous epilogue hammered that point into the viewers anyway. Subtlety and loose ending perhaps don't work on cop dramas, and even the BBC original has so far wrapped up its cases rather neatly.

Tonight's episode actually offered two more "freebie" parallels to KCET-ers. For one, it's the first episode of the NBC version to air since Mirren's Tennison has quit smoking. That tension -- a classic "Cheers"-style "will she or won't she?" in which the lady detective and tobacco replace Diane Chambers and Sam Malone -- adds tension to both shows. At some point, I imagine both Tennison and Timoney will crack and give in to their bad habit once again. And when it happens, it will be well-acted.

Secondly, we finally got some more background about a plot point introduced early in the NBC "Prime Suspect": her affair with her former superior. Timoney had to return to the guy -- a James Woods-looking schmuck who seems altogether too lame for our heroine -- and ask for the load of some of his officers in sweeping the park. The interaction reignites a dysfunctional give-and-take that likely ended their one-time romance.

Oh yeah -- he's married now, and could have been back when they were bumping badges. On the BBC "Prime Suspect," meanwhile, Tennison is attempting to navigate the workplace awkwardness that has resulted her one-time flame, a strapping subordinate officer, joining her division and working under her command. Dude, talk about tension. This one out smokes even smoking. Besides, it's offered Mirren a chance to show off the kittenish, sexpot qualities that she was prevented from using in the first series. Oh, Helen -- wouldn't every work place you're in be just crazy/sexy everyday?


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