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TV Review: ‘Prime Suspect: Tennison’ on PBS Masterpiece

Stefanie Martini, Sam Reid, Blake Harrison, Jessica Gunning, Alun Armstrong.
If the idea of a “Prime Suspect” prequel filled you with dread, well, you were right to be nervous.

The generally leaden “Prime Suspect: Tennison” isn’t all that great by the standards of recent U.K. crime dramas such as “Broadchurch” and “Happy Valley.” It suffers even more when compared with the heyday of the original “Prime Suspect,” which began a generally excellent 15-year run in the early ’90s.

The original incarnation of “Prime Suspect,” which starred Helen Mirren as London cop Jane Tennison, often demonstrated a welcome flexibility. Each season of the show was as long as or short as it needed to be in order to tell a crisp, suspenseful story heavy on the kind of character development that the best Brit crime shows are known for. “Tennison” is nowhere near as nimble. Installments runs past the 80-minute mark in order to tell a meandering, unexceptional story that could have used far more ruthless pruning and honing.

A bigger problem is the casting of Stefanie Martini in the lead role. The writing does her no favors — it’s obvious and superficial throughout — but Martini brings nothing but a wide-eyed innocence and a bland, earnest tentativeness to the role. Obviously, Tennison would be much different in 1973, at the start of her career, which is when this incarnation of the show is set. But this version of the character is so lacking in complexity that she might as well have parachuted in from one of the lackluster eras in the “Law & Order” shared universe.

Given the chance to fill out the details of Tennison’s early days, this program goes the obvious route almost every time. Her family members, when they appear, are generally depicted as one-dimensional, class-conscious nags who just want Jane to get married and settle down. Most of Jane’s colleagues are similarly uninteresting, and a flirtation with her boss never really gains much traction.

Simply put, “Tennison” never establishes a reason for its own existence. It was quite easy for the viewer to infer everything he or she needed to know about the character from the most engaging seasons of the Mirren vehicle. It was obvious that the routine sexism of the London police force had left its mark on the cagey, driven detective, and merely showing instances of that kind of bias in operation in the early ’70s does nothing to advance the viewers’ understanding of the character’s depths. And when “Tennison” moves away from its title character to focus on a turgid heist plot among London gangsters, it becomes even less interesting.

Though the prequel is rooted in a series that helped define a certain kind of textured, ambiguous U.K. crime drama, almost everyone in “Tennison” behaves in a predictable way, and the main murder investigation is notably short on exciting twists and turns. The soundtrack — heavy on bands like Pink Floyd and Roxy Music — is the best thing about the drama.

The original “Prime Suspect” is on Hulu, and watching — or re-watching — Mirren construct the building blocks of that TV legend would be a better use of one’s time than trying to stick with this muddled, hesitant and unnecessary backstory.

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TV Review: 'Prime Suspect: Tennison' on PBS Masterpiece

Drama; 6 episodes (2 viewed); PBS, Sun. June 25, 10 p.m. 90 MIN.

Crew: Executive producers, Rebecca Eaton, Camilla Campbell, Robert Wulff-Cochrane.

Cast: Stefanie Martini, Sam Reid, Blake Harrison, Jessica Gunning, Alun Armstrong.

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