Prime Suspect

Comparing Suspects: Two Very Different Detectives

Maria Bello and Helen Mirren.

If you watched KCET's broadcast of "Prime Suspect" on Wednesday night, you saw Helen Mirren's Det. Jane Tennison solve her first case. What's more, you saw her receive a standing ovation from her colleagues -- a sign that she had finally proven herself as a detective despite her gender and the vaguely feminine lady investigator suits she wears.

Tennison's big reception by her colleagues makes for a good point of comparison for the BBC "Prime Suspect" and the American remake, the fourth episode of which aired Thursday night on NBC. The American series heroine, Maria Bello's Det. Jane Timoney, also seems to have earned the acceptance of her colleagues -- to an extent. The boys in the squad room finally cut Timoney a break not only because they have finally acknowledged her superior detection skills but also because NBC seems to have given the writers the heads up that rampant sexism just doesn't fly in 2011.

She butts heads with the other detectives, sure, but that's now because she simply has a brusque manner that doesn't exactly win her friends. They joke. Sure, one of them might have called her "Elliott Dress," in one of the most awkward attempts at an insult ever, but these guys ultimately don't see her so much as "that female who wants to be a detective" so much as just a coworker whose talent for her job has left her without the wherewithal to exhibit social graces.

It's a happy coincidence, then, that as the BBC "Prime Suspect" enters its second series next week, Det. Tennison's investigations will also be gradually less hampered by sexism. It's a rare shared plot point as these two shows grow in different directions.

This week had Det. Timoney looking into her fourth murder -- and this time, the dead body happened to be male. (Not that that matters, but it's at least comforting to know that Bello is playing a character in some alternative universe version of New York where only its female residents end up dead.) The strange part? Literally everyone who knew the dead guy liked him -- his coworkers, his wife (who consented to his philandering), even the staff at the bar where he picked up skanks six nights a week. Timoney immediately suspects the wife, given this woman's inability to communicate anything useful about the alleged mugger who fatally shot her husband. Timoney is hostile. The wife, who's literally sitting in the ambulance at the crime scene during this interaction, is less than pleased. (See what I mean when I say that Timoney lacks social graces?)

Timoney continues to zero in on the wife, however, and drops by her apartment early one weekday morning to find... the dead man's boss. Again, Timoney smells that sort of extramarital hanky-panky that ends in death. Could she have paid off someone to get rid of her husband with a staged mugging-gone-bad? At the very least, money could be a factor: The apartment's living room is conspicuously missing a large piece of furniture that the wife identifies as a piano. And what financially secure couple would get rid of their piano? Eventually, a return to the late husband's bar of choice reveals a wall of photos -- snapshots of the various patrons, including the murder victim with mostly skanks and one stand-out dude: a loanshark for the Russian mob. Timoney barges into this slice of seedy Moscow, spoiling for a fight, but she gets an unexpectedly positive response: Even the Russian mob seemed to love the guy. What gives? Who would murder a guy who endears himself to other people as much as Timoney rubs them the wrong way?

In the end, Timoney puzzles it out that the mugger-turned-shooter was a dishwasher from the bar, and he had been paid by a bartender, who was probably his only enemy in the world. (You only need one.) It turns out our stiff-of-the-week played big with a fairly limited bank account, and though he managed to get all the money he needed -- remember, everyone loved him -- he made the mistake of talking up a joint venture with the barman: their own establishment, the cost of which they'd split. He points the bartender in the way of the Russian mob for money, but then backs out. The bartender, pissed and in debt, pays off the dishwasher to nab the guy's fancy watch. This fails to happen in the ensuing gunfire, and so Timoney produces the sought-after bauble. It's a fake. That noise you hear? It's the shattering of the American dream.

The relatively simple nature of this week's mystery underscores a major difference between the BBC and NBC versions of this show. What we Americans get works a lot more simply than what the Brits got 20 years ago. Honestly, this episode could have worked on any of the other crime procedurals currently littering broadcast with TV with bodies every week, save for one major virtue: Its detectives acted like characters, not just anonymous crime-solving robots. (Note to self: Crime-solving robots might make for a great TV show.)

It's a point made this week by New York Magazine and I have to agree. NBC's "Prime Suspect" allows some flesh in amongst all the corpses, and the banter we get between clues helps us care about the people doing the detective work. I've said before that the NBC series is a wholly different thing than the BBC one -- different plotlines, solved at different rates, by differently written characters. But the NBC series smartly retains the best feature of the BBC original: characterization. Just as Mirren had a lot of room to grow her character, so too does Bello -- and in one key instance, Bello even has a leg up.

Whereas Tennison's live-in boyfriend, Peter (Tom Wilkinson), exists partway through the first series, Timoney's cohabiting significant other, Matt (Kenny Johnson) has stuck around and likely will continue to do so. For this, viewers should be pleased. This most recent episode afforded Timoney a chance to appear grounded as she dealt with Matt's son's upcoming birthday. What to get him? To attend the birthday party? How will Matt's ex react? The stress of this situation -- slight compared to that of solving murder but still appreciable -- rounds out Timoney as a character. The boys in the office may have let up on the sexism, but the viewer is reminded that she's a woman with feelings, emotional needs and relatable relationship worries.

Mirren may have wrung out a fully realized person out of her every scene. Indeed, her face reads anguish and triumph she feels with every twist of the case. But Bello plays a different sort of female detective. Those willing to ride along with her on the American "Prime Suspect" may yet see her delve into aspects of the character that Mirren was never allowed.