Primally Bummed about Prime Suspect

Maria Bello as Detective Jane Timoney in NBC’s Prime Suspect
Maria Bello as Detective Jane Timoney
On September 22, NBC will show the first episode in director Peter Berg’s “reimagined” version of the acclaimed British police procedural drama, Prime Suspect.

Nothing against Peter Berg, whose directorial work I’ve enjoyed in the past. And nothing against Maria Bello, who will be playing the role of Detective Jane Timoney (formerly known as Jane Tennison and played with aplomb by Helen Mirren). But, I will be televisionally elsewhere at that time.

As a pre-teen anglophile, I was under a sworn obligation to immerse myself in all things English. And the main source of British television for me in those days (BBC America not having been invented yet) was PBS. I can still remember that first episode of Prime Suspect, and it’s been…well, a lot of years. For this Jane Austen lover, and tea and crumpets aficionado, the grit and gloom and sheer realism of Prime Suspect was a revelation. Gone was the pretty, pastoral, twee England that I had envisioned from my reading of Agatha Christie and Georgette Heyer, and in its place there rested a place where child molesters lurked in Advice Centers (something akin to the Boys & Girls Club here in the states), and the bones of murdered runaways were found beneath garden paving stones. And there, in the middle of it all, was Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison, pressing up against the glass ceiling one cigarette burn at a time.

Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison in Prime Suspect
Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison
Along with her team of crack detectives—many of whom were so not cool with being led and outranked by a woman—Jane didn’t always play by the rules. She had to remind her guys again and again to refer to her as “guv” instead of the loathed “ma’am.” She was at times crude, often insubordinate, and she had a bit of a drinking problem. And let’s not mention her affairs. So many affairs. But she got the job done. And she cared. (Which is why she drank.)

Over the seasons, Prime Suspect featured a veritable revolving door of classically trained British actors. Who can forget Ciaran Hinds, at his creepy best (or worst if you love him as Captain Wentworth in the 1995 version of Persuasion), as Edward Parker-Jones. Or Stephen Macintosh as The Street? Tom Wilkinson, Zoe Wanamaker, Colin Salmon, David Thewlis, Mark Strong…the list is endless. And always, always, Helen Mirren’s Tennison, at the heart of the drama.

Through the years, I’ve watched some of my favorite British shows get the Americanization treatment. Cracker, which was unrecognizable without Robby Coltrane. Coupling, which seemed crass and overproduced, and somehow mercenary, in its American iteration. And of course, The Office, which I cannot watch. Will this new version of one of my favorite mystery shows of all time work? I don’t know.

If I do end up watching, I’ll do so with an effort to completely divorce this new version from the classic one. It’s the only way those of us past a certain age can survive with our sensibilities (or our hearts) intact.

Manda Collins has been reading mysteries since her first Nancy Drew at the age of six. An academic librarian by day, by night she writes historical romance blended with mystery for St. Martin’s Press. Her first book, How to Dance with a Duke, is scheduled for release in February, 2012. To learn more, check out her webpage or follow her on Twitter @MandaCollins.


  1. Deborah Lacy

    I’m with you on this one Manda. I’d rather just watch the old one again…

  2. Vanessa Kelly

    I do love Maria Bello, though, so I’m interested to see what she’ll do with the role. But Helen Mirren is the queen of, well, everything! No one does it better

  3. Elizabeth K. Mahon

    I’m with you too Manda. I’ll take the original out of the library. The commercial that I saw promoting it was especially horrible.

  4. Leslie Gilbert Elman

    When I spotted a billboard ad for this a few weeks ago I thought, “This can’t be good.” Poor Maria Bello. Even if she’s phenomenal in this role, she’ll still be measured against Helen Mirren and that’s a tough comparison. The timing is odd as well. If the American version had been made in the 1990s I could understand; but why revisit it now?

  5. sandra seamans

    I wonder how people would be so ready to hate this show if they weren’t advertising it as a remake of Prime Suspect? I love Maria Bello and I plan to watch. It’s set in America not England, there’s no way in hell it’s even going to come close to the original. Calling it a remake is just prime time Hollywood trying to grab viewers. Would everyone’s panties be in such a knot if the show was titled anything other than Prime Suspect?

  6. Manda Collins

    I actually like Maria Bello as well, and I’ll probably end up watching at some point. Just to see. But the previews I’ve seen just don’t work for me. And that might be the Americanization and it might be the updating. The character of Jane Tennyson was so iconic that I think anybody who tries to take it on, whether she’s got the same last name or not, is going to face an uphill battle.

    As for whether we’d still be upset if it were called something else, I don’t know. I think there is a natural negative response to learning that something they once loved is going to be completely overhauled and updated. I get that there’s nothing new under the sun and that writers and producers are going to try to recreate successes where they can. In my day job we talk a lot about there being no reason to re-invent the wheel. But by the same token, it is jarring and just…upsetting about some new guy stepping up and saying he’s going to take a work of art that is already fine on its own and re-do it.

    I’d feel the same way if Dick Wolf decided to re-create Law and Order around the character of Lenny Brisco, only this time played by Leonardo DiCaprio and renamed Lenny Brown, and set in a post 9/11 New York.

  7. sandra seamans

    I understand that no one can replace Helen Mirren and I loved the original Prime Suspect. The truth is, I have no expectations of the new show even being close to the original. It just seems like everyone is shooting down the new show before it even has a chance to get off the ground. I’ve enjoyed the previews I’ve seen and hope the show gets a chance to gain an audience. That said, they’ll probably cancel it after three episodes because nobody is watching 🙂

  8. junglesiren

    The original was brilliant, no doubt. The quintessential police procedural with a protagonist who is complex and strong and vulnerable. She’s got deamons and issues and so on. But I watched the new version and what I choose to do is not think of it at all as “the American version”. Maria Bello is a fine actress, one of the best of her generation IMO. She did a great job. No, the show won’t be as complex because in America producers and networks have a great concern for syndication packages and that means having a serial (one where you need to watch them in order to have a true understanding of what’s going on) cuts down the chances of getting it made because it’s hard to put in syndication. So while they will probably focus on elements of her personal life (serially) it won’t be in any order that matters. They should take a page from Homicide wherein they mix up the elements of serial hour-longs wiht the stand-alones.

    Anyway…. The show is not great, I mean, it’s not The Wire or Homicide or Deadwood but it’s still better than most of the crap out there.

  9. justthinking

    I am really miss Prime Suspect. I loved Maria Bello’s character. I find a show I really like and POOF it’s gone. Who are these people cancelling these shows???
    p.s. I really liked the hat!

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