Unusual ‘Suspect’ keeps it real

Series set mold for complex female TV cops

“Prime Suspect: The Final Act,” the concluding chapter of the seven-part series, will be up for four Emmys next month, hoping to add to its four statuettes accumulated over the previous 15 years. Yet when the series made its U.S. debut in 1992, it was hardly a sure bet.

For one, the venue in which it first aired, “Masterpiece Theatre’s” “Mystery” series, was primarily known for period pieces and “Inspector Morse.” “Prime Suspect” also trafficked in unflinching violence still questionable for television, and at 3½ hours, demanded an investment of time unusual for a police show.

And perhaps most important, at the center of the show was a single woman of a certain age.

The character of Jane Tennison, a maniacally driven, occasionally brutal London detective, was initially created by mystery writer Lynda La Plante from the model of real-life British cop Jackie Malton. But in star Helen Mirren’s hands, it became something else entirely.

“Helen transformed a police procedural script — albeit a very good one — into a whole different kind of thing,” says executive producer Rebecca Eaton, who has been with the series from the start.

While gritty realism had breached copshows before — “Hill Street Blues” had come and gone, and “Law & Order” was still in its infancy — the degree to which that realism bled into the private life of its flawed heroine was somewhat revelatory.

Eaton argues the series helped popularize “the idea that you would give equal time to the personal life of the cop in question. Joe Friday in ‘Dragnet’ — you never knew much about his personal life.”

Throughout the series, writers and producers were confronted with the challenge of balancing the murder mystery that anchored every show with the continuing tale of Tennison’s tribulations. And while those central whodunits were sometimes topical to a fault — dealing with such varied issues as male prostitution and the Bosnian refugee crisis — Tennison’s developments were strictly rooted in the psychological.

After the first “Prime Suspect,” which narrowed its focus on the particular pressures of a woman dealing with Scotland Yard’s excess of Y chromosomes, issues of gender became less pronounced as the series went on, serving instead as the unspoken background from which Tennison’s multiple issues sprung.

Eaton admits it was a difficult task. “We didn’t want to just go to the textbook of women’s dilemmas and drag one out,” she says. “We tried to be realistic about the difficulties a woman like that might face.”

In Tennison’s case, those difficulties took the form of male trouble, a ticking biological clock (“PS 4” begins with the detective going in for an abortion), a consumptive career, a dying father and, especially toward the series’ end, alcoholism. By last year’s installment, Tennison was regularly blacking out, dancing drunk alone at night and showing up to interrogations reeking of booze.

The notion that a woman could anchor a procedural show, and could do so without dulling the rougher edges of her character, has undoubtedly served as inspiration for the current breed of tough women on the tube, from Mariska Hargitay to Kyra Sedgwick, Holly Hunter and Glenn Close.

For that, Eaton lays all the credit on Mirren.

“Helen had a strong voice in it, because she knew Jane Tennison,” she says. “I would argue that they have a lot of things in common, on a very deep level. And so Helen had her authenticity radar, which was particularly acute to what would be right for Jane.”

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