Prime Suspect

Comparing Suspects: The Ketamine Caper

We KCETers who are watching the BBC "Prime Suspect" in conjunction with the NBC remake have been fortunate. Why? Well, no one is watching NBC right now, save for us and a few other people, and we've been able to continue watching Maria Bello's version of the role Helen Mirren originated. Any other season, more or less, this new "Prime Suspect" would have been canned, but ratings are so bottom-of-the-barrel low that the Peacock that we're allowed to see a variation on the BBC "Prime Suspect" grow week-by-week into something layered and expansive and, if this trend continues, worth of its title.

This week, Bello's fedora-topped, frumpy-grump Det. Timoney set out to catch a serial killer -- a prostitute who is robbing her johns by drugging them silly, possibly to the point of killing them. All in all, the stakes were lower than they were for Mirren's Detective Jane Tennison, who, as KCET viewers know, is in the third week of a month-long search into a young woman's killer. But it's nonetheless a solid hour of TV that NBC aired. Tell your friends! Really! I like this recapping gig!

Fortunately for Timoney, one client of this hooker with a heart of coal survives his less-than-romantic encounter, and he's able to provide a few details about her modus operandi. She's forward. She met him in a hotel bar (just she met the murder victim) and before he could complete his transaction, he was stumbling and cross-eyed. Before they can get a handle on where the perpetrator could have obtained her drug -- ketamine, favorite of veterinarians and '90s club kids -- a third victim turns up. He's dead, and the actor playing his buddy gets a few nice moments of grief, the likes of which we haven't seen since "Law & Order" ended. How could he have let this happen to a friend -- and on the trip to the big city that they were supposed to be enjoying at the horse races?

Beneath her trademark hat, Timoney adds two and two together to find that the sum is horses. Horses! Of course! They're large animals, and where there are such beasts, there may also be Special K! In short order, a trip to the stables reveals a vets' shady, paid-under-the-table nephews as the ketamine thief, and his former prison cell mate as the drug dealer whose girlfriend is bumping off the, um, unlucky, stiff stiffs. A clever ruse on the detectives' parts ropes the surviving john to take a polygraph test -- within view of the dealer/boyfriend/pimp-in-training. When the john answers that he never slept with the prostitute, however, the polygraph reacts as if he's lying. That's all the boyfriend needs to help the cops nab the girlfriend. Case closed: two dead guys, and a lesson for the audience at home about the one potentially negative result of buying a prostitute.

What's remarkable about this episode, especially when viewed in concert with the BBC "Prime Suspect" that aired on Wednesday, isn't the funny little similarities between key scenes. (Though these happen again this week. There's the lingering tension in both about how the protagonist's prior relationship will impact her job, but there's also a very specific one. In the BBC version, Tennison told a woman her son had committed suicide in prison, and the woman's reaction was a burst of righteous, violent behavior, directed at Tennison and which Tennison does nothing to stop, at first. In the NBC version, the first victim's wife reacts similarly when she learns her husband died as a result of his interaction with a hooker, and Timoney similarly, lets her beat out her rage a bit.) No, what's remarkable about the NBC series' most recent installment is how it's finding ways to improve on the original material.

Purists may scoff -- scoff away, I say -- but in so radically diverging from the original "Prime Suspect" plot structure, the NBC show is creating a bigger world. I haven't counted screen time minute by minute, but I feel like Timoney actually shows up on screen less often than Tennison does. Ever so slightly, the focus is shifted off the protagonist and onto the world she lives in. It's a good thing, especially for a weekly procedural show.

The broader tone of the NBC "Prime Suspect" is suggested in other ways as well. For example, we're not seven installments into KCET's run of the Helen Mirren version. How often do you see her do something unrelated to the case at hand? It's not all that often. It happens more frequently for Bello's character, and a good example from this week was the brief interaction with her pops and her boyfriend in the bar, complete with the former's character-building recollection of his days in Vietnam. The difference between these two works, as I see it now, is that the original focuses on one woman's professional life using select cases as a means to see in. The remake is about the woman herself.

Let's hope she sticks around so we can see more of her.