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The Sad Death of Prime Suspect

Women and Hollywood By Melissa Silverstein | Women and Hollywood November 29, 2011 at 11:11AM

This TV season has lots of female created and female starring shows.  Some stink (Whitney), some are great (Up All Night), and most kind of fall somewhere in the middle (2 Broke Girls).  (For a an analysis of the Whitney Cummings phenomenon check out this piece from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker.  I guess the good news is that we've come to the place where women can create shows as middling and mediocre as their male colleagues and it's not the end of the world.  We know we will have more shows about women created by women (not enough, but some) in the future because women watch TV and advertisers want women.
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Maria Bello in Prime Suspect

This TV season has lots of female created and female starring shows.  Some stink (Whitney), some are great (Up All Night), and most kind of fall somewhere in the middle (2 Broke Girls).  (For a an analysis of the Whitney Cummings phenomenon check out this piece from Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker.  I guess the good news is that we've come to the place where women can create shows as middling and mediocre as their male colleagues and it's not the end of the world.  We know we will have more shows about women created by women (not enough, but some) in the future because women watch TV and advertisers want women.

There are always shows that don't make it that I am sad about and I think I will pine for what might have happened on My So Called Life until I die, and this season my lament is for Prime Suspect created by Alexandra Cunningham.  I had very high hopes for the show.  Created by a woman, about a woman cop (I love my female cop shows), based on the amazing British mini-series of the same name that starred Helen Mirren.  I am sad because this was one of the strongest shows about women this season and it died a sad death for no good reason.  I know that NBC tried.  They really tried.  They put the show on practically every night trying to get people to watch, but it didn't work.

The problem with the show started at the pilot.  Remember the first Prime Suspect took place in 1991.  That's 20 years ago.  What else happened 20 years ago?  Anita Hill.  Sexual harassment, while happening all over the place, was given a name and a face by Ms. Hill and when we saw how Mirren's Jane Tennison was treated by her male colleagues we got it.  But in 2011 too much time had passed and the aggressive male behavior in the pilot towards Maria Bello who played the American version, Jane Timoney just didn't work.  It was too much.  Way too over the top. 

The good news for those of us who gave the show a chance is that it got a lot better after the pilot.  Sometimes shows need time to grow.  Look at how AMAZING Parenthood is now.  That show still struggles but NBC has stuck with it and it is now my Friday Night Lights.  That show slays me.  Prime Suspect could have gone there -- and should have since Peter Berg the creator of Friday Night Lights is one of the Executive Producers of Prime Suspect.  The chemistry between Bello and the men on the squad was thawing.  The interesting dynamic was how they all figured out how to work together when Jane was in charge of a case. 

Now the thing about Jane that is quite cool is that she acts just like the guys, but she is a girl.  That's what made the show so promising.  She's doesn't give a shit about having people like her.  She just wants to solve the case.  And that brings me to another issue that people have problems with -- a female character that is not 100% likeable.  No matter how far we have come on TV with female characters we still are not there with having women who are not likeable.  I'm racking my brain here and the only names I came up with is Roseanne and Kara Thrace from Battlestar Galactica, and I'd say she was half and half (please chime in with others).  Maria Bello's Jane Timoney was I'd say 80% unlikeable and 20% likeable. 

One thing this show made me notice is how it is easy to write a TV show starring a man and have female and male supporting characters surround that lead, but that it is way harder to write a show about a female lead and to create a realistic ensemble around her.  One of the issues with this show is that there were no other female credible characters on the show.  It's too much baggage for the female lead.  She has to respond to the pretty cop who comes in and flirts, she has to deal with the crazy demands of her boyfriend's ex, she has a crazy sister (where did that come from?).  None of those women was a peer or someone she could have a decent conversation with to get her away from all the testosterone.  

But I wish it would continue because it was heading in a really great direction and the episode where Jane went on the road with Brian O'Byrne to protect a child witness was one of those episodes that you build on.  Too bad we won't get to see where the show could have gone.

NBC’s ‘Prime Suspect’ To Shut Down Production (Deadline)

Critic's Notebook: Take the cuffs off 'Prime Suspect' (LA Times)


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