By Les Chappell
Original airdate: December 15 and 16, 1992
One of the most prominent differences between the American and British models of television – beyond the cultural sensibilities and tone of humor – is the fact that they don’t subscribe to the same schedule of airing a series. While American broadcast and cable networks for the most part follow the 13 or 22-episode format for a season, premiering at much the same time every year, a lot of the more well-regarded series (Doctor Who, Luther and Sherlock to name a few) have aired episodes in a more erratic order, sometimes with additional months or even years between the next serial. It’s a model that might seem to be a bit erratic, but one that also means they’re not operating on as strict of a clock, and they can schedule depending on when actors are available or when the writing staff has the right ideas.
Similarly, much as Prime Suspect took its time to detail one murder investigation, Lynda La Plante and company took their time in returning to the character of Jane Tennison, with the second series of Prime Supect airing more than twenty months after the first concluded. A return was inevitable, given that the show was a critical hit almost immediately after airing, garnering multiple award nominations and earning four BAFTA TV Awards, including Best TV Actress for Helen Mirren and Best Drama Serial for La Plante and her fellow showrunners. And with the first series ending with Tennison at a career high point after spending the first few hours scrambling to be taken seriously, there’s a new dynamic that a new case could take full advantage of.
And they do certainly take advantage of it, as the second series of Prime Suspect lives up to the potential set forth in the original, while at the same time staking out its own ground as a story. While the first series was an intensely psychological affair, the second series comes across as more of a straight procedural, one where the basic structure of the mystery could be stripped down and converted into an installment of Law and Order, NCIS or Cold Case. This does make it a little less effective in terms of craft, but it’s also a much more accessible story, and one that retains nearly everything that worked in the first installment.
Prime Suspect 2 picks up in real-time from the first series, with a little over a year since the successful close of the George Marlow investigation. Tennison’s earned the respect of both her department and the force as a tenacious if unconventional investigator. When the skeleton of a teenage girl is unearthed in a back garden with precious little evidence to go on, her commanding officer Detective Superintendent Kernan puts her team on the case, expecting attention to detail and proper discretion—with special emphasis on the latter. The body was unearthed in an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood whose history with the police is tense at best, including the unsolved disappearance of Simone Cameron, a girl who shares more than a few identifying characteristics with the deceased.
The reason why I say the second case feels less groundbreaking than the first comes down to a question of format. The first Prime Suspect split time between the lives of both Tennison and Marlow, a move that allowed viewers to see the psychological toll taken on both sides of the investigation and continually raised doubts about whether or not the police had the right focus. Here, the nominal prime suspect – David Harvey, an elderly man who used to rent the property where the body was unearthed – is only seen in the context of Tennison’s questioning, and there’s no glimpses of how he personally holds up once she leaves. He’s an object of interest for the life of investigation, but the focus isn’t as intense at any part as it was for Marlow. Here, our attentions are fragmented to a wider list of suspects and motivations, converting it from a more focused “did he do it” to the open-ended question of “whodunit.”
That being said, calling it a more traditional procedural doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a damn effective example of the format, with La Plante’s story and Allan Cubbit’s teleplay keeping the progression of the mystery accordingly tense and nuanced. Suspects are identified and dismissed in entirely logical ways—particularly with a neat trick Tennison plays by switching out her watch for the victim’s to eliminate Simone Cameron from consideration. There’s some very solid bits of forensic investigation* in the format, with a pair of African bracelets and a distinctive belt buckle proving to be key parts in both identifying the victim and the murderer. Once again, there’s no shots fired or even a gun pulled in the entire series, so the excitement comes comes from the intensity of the interrogation scenes (particularly Harvey’s deathbed confession) and the race against time as Tennison’s team tries to pin down the perpetrator. And while slightly toned down from the first series, the show remains heavily atmospheric thanks to the grittier style of shooting and the enveloping score of Stephen Warbeck.
*Speaking to Prime Suspect’s role as a template for contemporary cop shows, the concept of constructing a face from the skull alone would become a staple of forensic-centered procedurals like Bones and NCIS*, with computer generation replacing the clay bust.
**I noticed this in the first series and it could just be the accent, but the attitude of the lead medical examiner with the body and assistants has more than a passing similarity to Ducky from NCIS.
Of course, the series is founded on the character of DCI Tennison, and Helen Mirren turns in another first-rate performance. Given that both parts of the series open with a Tennison interrogation—even if the first is a demonstration—La Plante and company are entirely aware of Mirren’s strengths and write to them accordingly. Once again she’s an investigator who’s in complete control of things, or at least presents herself as such, her only acknowledgment to the tension being the candy she chomps on* to help her quit smoking. She’s tough but fair on her men, serious but not above a triumphant “Yes!” when the case catches a break, capable of improvisation when the case calls for it, and wielding an icy contempt when an obstacle presents itself. And most endearingly, she also hasn’t learned administrative tact in the matter of her career advancement: When she learns Kiernan is particularly worried about the case because he’s up for promotion, her response isn’t to reassure him they’ll succeed but say she hopes to be recommended for her post.
*Of the many contemporary dramas that have taken cues from Prime Suspect, TNT’s The Closer has been the most open about doing so, and the scenes where Tennison impatiently unwraps a candy bar bear an undeniable resemblance to Brenda Leigh Johnson’s own love of sweets.
One of Tennison’s greatest personal weaknesses in the first series was her commitment to the job over her personal life, and that conflict comes up again here—and it’s made even worse by the fact that the new man in her life is a cop as well. Detective Sergeant Robert Oswalde, played by Colin Salmon (recognizable to modern audiences as MI6 Chief of Staff Charles Robinson in the Pierce Brosnan-era James Bond films) is introduced as her fling during a series of police training exercises, and affair she’s quick to call off the instant she gets the call for a new case. When the political stakes of the investigation rise, Kernan brings him into the squad, a move that rankles a Tennison who’s overprotective of both her department and the distance her personal life has with said department.
With this direct involvement in the case Salmon’s asked to do much more than Tom Wilkinson was in the first series, and he’s a fantastic foil to Mirren. The opening scenes show them in an interrogation setting that’s proved to be a demonstration, which is a nice trick of putting both in an adversarial role to demonstrate how strong they both are as actors. Oswalde’s not afraid to push for better assignments, pursue leads without Tennison’s approval, or even to chide her about her poor culinary choices*. And as the investigation goes on and starts to wear on them—she nearly pleads with her team to get results, he weighs the consequences of a fatal decision—we get to see them in weaker moments, yet thwarted from anything truly romantic by their respective pride and ambitions. Equal credit goes to the editors, who make the brilliant decision of cross-cutting Tennison and Oswalde’s respective breaks in the case and showing us how each detective goes about getting results.
*Much like Carrie Matheson in Homeland, keeping a well-stocked fridge is very low on Tennison’s list of priorities.
On the legal side of things the cast is fleshed out by the return of Tennison’s squad, who unfortunately are still not very identifiable beyond being a batch of generic white guys. I attribute this to the format they’re working under, as with only three and a half hours the attention needs to be paid to Tennison and Oswalde, and they at least do make an effort to apply a couple of character traits here and there. More effective are the Allen family, members of the community who owned the house where the body was discovered, and who are revealed to have an unexpected connection the victim. George Harris as family patriarch Vernon Allen has an amiable quality that gives way to startling emotion as time goes on—he takes the Ralph Fiennes role of indicting Tennison’s stone-faced aspects by spitting out “Lady, may you rot in hell for this” in a particularly harsh moment. His children likewise provide strong foils for the detectives: Tony (Fraser James) has a clearly unhinged quality that reacts poorly with Oswalde’s increasing frustrations, and law student Sarah (Jenny Jules) forces Tennison to take a more cerebral approach.
It’s fitting that the family forms such a strong part of the investigation, given that Prime Suspect has mostly* shifted its focus from the institutional sexism that defined the first installment. Here, with the murder taking place in a predominantly black neighborhood, the issue of import is the racism that has infected the whole relationship between the police and the civilians. The investigation is politicized early on as both Simone’s disappearance and her cousin’s conviction for allegedly murdering a white man are thrown in the faces of the investigating detectives, and Tennison’s squad doesn’t do much to help out – Officer Frank Berkin in particular is as nakedly racist as DS Oatley was sexist.
*Downplayed but certainly not gone, as once again Tennison has to deal with some unflattering tabloid publicity and at one point curtly says “Don’t call me mum” to wrap up a conversation with a fellow officer.
Does the show do as good of a job as dealing with this issue as it did with sexism? I don’t think it does, going back to my earlier point in that this second series isn’t as subtle as the original was. In Prime Suspect 1, it was more about the smaller gestures of Oatley and others undermining Tennison’s authority, with the violence Marlow meted out on his female victims symbolic of the dehumanizing attitudes. Here the racial divides are up front and apologetic: Berkin mutters about having to talk to “those people,” Kernan offers an epithet of “black bastard,” and Oswalde on more than one occasion vents his frustration at being the “token black” in the squad. Certainly racism is a very unfortunate part of society, and this isn’t as blatant as something like Crash, but compared to the first series this one is much more up front about what its message is.
But as I’m quickly learning to expect, there are still the little moments Prime Suspect offers that prove its worth, such as Jane Tennison boiling down the point of the case: “What difference does it make what color her skin used to be?” To use the terminology of Bunk Moreland, she’s murder po-lice, and in Prime Suspect 2 her tenacity and drive are what moves the case through to a satisfying conclusion. Is it a more traditional mystery than the original? Yes, but it’s also a bit more accessible, and in its own way every bit as compelling.
Les Chappell is one of the founders of This Was Television, a freelance writer for The A.V. Club’s TV Club and founder of the television blog A Helpless Compiler and the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals. You can follow him on Twitter @lesismore9o9.