September 22, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
PRIME SUSPECT –  Thursday 10PM on NBC:  If Nothing Else Is On…

The fact that NBC’s PRIME SUSPECT bears that title is probably all but meaningless to most of the American public.  The BBC version of the show was a huge hit for PBS in 1991, but the phrase “huge hit for PBS in 1991” is more like the punchline at a meeting of network executives than a marketing statement.  And it’s just as well, because anyone who really wanted to compare the new series with its British counterpart would have to note that its storyline (written by Alexandra Cunningham of Desperate Housewives, and not particularly based on the Lynda LaPlante original) is far less interesting, provocative and  complicated than its predecessor’s.  Also, considering that by the time the BBC version ended in 2006, its heroine Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) had been more or less accepted as a senior police officer by her fellow cops (and that in The Closer–another spin on the British series and in some wayx more of a template for NBC than the original Prime Suspect–Kyra Sedgwick’s character has compleely won over her LAPD colleagues, not to mention that on AMC’s current The Killing, the lead detective’s gender isn’t even an issue), it’s somewhat retro to see the flagrantly sexist departmental foes her American parallel has to fight against in 2011, playing scenes modeled after those written for a series 20 years old.
So let’s put the British Prime Suspect aside, and consider the new series strictly as the modern-day procedural that it is.  On that basis, clearly the strongest asset the new series has is the presence of Maria Bello in the lead, here renamed Jane Timoney.  Comparisons with Mirren in her signature role are unfair, but Bello is a strong, magnetic presence, totally believable as someone who’s had to fight every step of her career, and who’s passionate about justice for victims and for herself.  The script doesn’t do her a lot of favors–I wish the breakthrough moment in Jane’s investigation didn’t come because she’s better with children than her male colleagues, and that they’d given her a more interesting beau than her vaguely defined British boyfriend (a nod to the BBC?).  But Bello kills in the scene with the kids, and when she gets to face off with her boyfriend’s ex-wife, so clearly she’ll deliver whenever the writing allows her to.
There’s also a strong supporting cast, although they’re all pretty one-dimensional in the pilot:  the sexist cops include Aidan Quinn, Brian O’Byrne and Kirk Acevedo (wait, what about Fringe?), and Jane’s dad is Peter Gerety.  Peter Berg directed the pilot, a fact evident only in a few free-floating scenes among the cops and between Jane and her father.  If the show’s plan is to stick with Jane vs the male cops, it’ll be an anomaly:  most successful US cop shows, from Bones to The Shield, are based around ensembles that function smoothly together, no matter how dysfunctional they may be, so it’ll be interesting to see how this show manages the level of hostility between Jane and her team (the guess here is that as with The Closer, over the course of a season they’ll reluctantly start to respect her). 

The Thursday 10PM timeslot isn’t the quality magnet that it used to be; Prime Suspect‘s competition will be Private Practice on ABC and The Mentalist on CBS, two shows that have never been breakout hits.  So although it’s not a great fit with its young, broad comedy lead-in Whitney (the more I see of NBC’s shows, the less I understand Whitney‘s place on their Thursday schedule), Prime Suspect offers some potential for growth on the night–Mitch Metcalf’s analysis gives it a chance for 2d place in the slot, with a far better rating than NBC had in the hour last season.  For audiences who don’t care about the illustrious footsteps being followed (and most won’t), Bello’s presence makes the show is perfectly reasonable if unexciting choice for the hour. 

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."