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Friday, July 22, 2011


Sometimes a TV series comes along which transcends the "cop show" genre, and in fact just about anything else you could classify it as, reaching a level of excellence that makes it more of a life experience than a simple entertainment.  "Prime Suspect" with Helen Mirren is just such a show.  Like a glutton wolfing down a seven-course meal, I went through Acorn Media's PRIME SUSPECT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION with voracious speed while not wanting it to end.

Mirren's "Jane Tennison" is a fascinating, complex character whom we follow from her early days as a Detective Chief Inspector for London's Metropolitan Police, through her promotion to Detective Superintendent in charge of multiple units, and finally to her final turbulent days on the force.  Brilliant and strong-willed, Tennison is also subject to various foibles and human weaknesses that complicate both her personal and professional lives.  Often she wonders if she's chosen the right path, especially when plagued by loneliness, self-doubt, and regret. 

Series 1, which debuted in 1991 and consists of two feature-length parts, finds Tennison knee-deep in sexist resentment and derision while heading her first major murder investigation.  Scripter Lynda La Plante based much of the character's difficulty in winning over her skeptical male team members on the real-life experiences of technical advisor Jackie Malton, one of the first female DCIs, and the dramatic tension never fails to ring true.  Only after proving herself worthy does Tennison begin to gradually gain the respect of her male colleagues.

This story sets the dark, gritty tone for the series and raises the bar for all the other forensics-based cop shows to follow.  Character conflicts crackle with tension, as when Tennison butts heads with patronizing superiors who hamper her efforts or old-school detectives such as DS Bill Otley (Tom Bell).  The pressure of trying to track down a brutal serial killer devastates her home life with both her live-in fiance' (Tom Wilkinson) and her immediate family.  Time after time Tennison is forced to question her decision to sacrifice everything for her career. 

The camera stays close to the actors' faces and keeps up right in the middle of things at all times.  Without the usual quick editing, throbbing music, or adrenaline-charged action, the sober and languidly-paced story is given plenty of room to stretch out and develop its dramatic potential to the fullest.  Just when you think the plot is headed for the most likely conclusion, the script explores unexpected avenues that are consistently surprising and often shocking. 

Series 2 is another two-parter with racial overtones stemming from the discovery of a body buried in the garden of a house in a neighborhood filled with Jamaican immigrants.  Colin Salmon ("Tanner" of the Brosnan 007 films) guest stars as a black detective placed on Tennison's team after an unfortunate sexual encounter between the two.  Tensions rise when a teenage boy held in custody commits suicide in his cell and Tennison is blamed. 

Series 3 delves into the world of child prostitution with the murder of a "rent boy" and charges of long-term sexual abuse by a trusted social services director (Ciaran Hinds).  Tom Bell returns as Otley, and Jonny Lee Miller guests as one of the young victims.  Series 4 consists of three shorter episodes, and while the first two are more conventional stories that lack the depth of the previous shows, the third, "Scent of Darkness", is one of the series' finest.  Here, a new rash of serial murders similar to those in the first episode raise the question of whether or not Tennison may have imprisoned the wrong man in the original investigation. 

Series 5, "Errors of Judgment", finds Tennison locking horns with a cocky young drug dealer who rules the streets through terror and may have a powerful ally on the police force.  Of particular interest here is her prickly relationship with a new team dubious of her abilities, including a nice turn by David O'Hara (BRAVEHEART) as a seemingly slow-witted detective who turns out to be smarter than he looks.

After a six-year production gap (1997-2003), Series 6 finds Mirren playing an older and increasingly disillusioned character under pressure to retire.  The murder of a Bosnian woman thrusts Tennison into one of her most emotionally trying cases yet, as victims of war hiding out in London are stalked by a devilish figure from the past. This later episode is just as effective as earlier ones, but looks slicker and more streamlined.  With a faster pace and more emphasis on thriller elements, some sequences bristle with nerve-wracking suspense.

"The Final Act", which aired in 2006, brings "Prime Suspect" and the career of Jane Tennison to a close with the murder of a 14-year-old girl, the impending death of Jane's father (Frank Finlay), and the aging detective's battle with alcoholism.  Mirren is at peak form here as her character struggles to solve one last murder while her life is falling apart.  Tom Bell makes his final appearance as DS Otley, re-entering Jane's life in a surprising way.  Young actress Laura Greenwood gives an amazingly good performance as the murdered girl's troubled friend. 

The boxed set from Acorn Media contains nine discs in seven keepcases.  Series 1-5 are in 4:3 full screen while 6-7 are in 16:9 widescreen, all with Dolby Digital sound.  Each episode is subtitled except for Series 7, which is closed-captioned.  Series 6 contains a 23-minute featurette, while Series 7 extras include a 50-minute behind-the-scenes documentary, photo gallery, and cast filmographies.  Beside the actors already mentioned, familiar faces such as Ralph Fiennes and Kelly Reilly (EDEN LAKE) can be seen making early guest appearances in various episodes.

The great Helen Mirren is a neverending fount of awesome as Jane Tennison, always riveting to watch whenever she's onscreen.  Her character's arc binds this collection of engrossing police procedurals together.  Tennison is a great cop but hardly perfect, and we're not even sure she'll get through her last case without self-destructing.  A small grace note from an unexpected source comes at the very end, and we're left to wonder whether or not it makes her feel as though her life on the force has been worth the sacrifice.  One thing's for sure--PRIME SUSPECT: THE COMPLETE COLLECTION is some of the most worthwhile viewing that cop show fans could possibly hope for. 

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