Judge Mike Pinsky says you won't find this side of London in your Fodor's guide.
Our reviews of Prime Suspect 1 (published January 19th, 2004), Prime Suspect 4 And 5 (published June 7th, 2004), Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (published August 11th, 2004), and Prime Suspect: Complete Collection (published August 19th, 2010) are also available.
"I mean, Jesus, this is a murder investigation, Frank. A young girl finishes up buried in someone's back yard like the family cat, her skull smashed to pieces. What difference does it make what color her skin used to be?"—DCI Tennison (Helen Mirren) to DI Frank Burkin (Craig Fairbrass)
Female cops never seem to fair well on American television. Of course, there was Pepper Anderson, Angie Dickinson's tough but sensitive '70s detective in Police Woman. Then we had Cagney and Lacey. Lifetime Network has the estrogen-driven The Division, but that has gone almost unnoticed by the general public. You might notice that none of these shows ran concurrently. There seems to be an unwritten rule on American television that viewers can only handle one successful female cop at a time. The blue glass ceiling keeps women from being anything more than an anomaly in television law enforcement.
If Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren) had her way, that rule would be history. Well, to be honest, Tennison is no feminist, at least in the philosophical sense. She is a careerist, driven to succeed at the expense of friends, lovers, and even her own happiness. At the beginning of Prime Suspect 2, Tennison is wrapping up a brief fling with Detective Sergeant Bob Oswalde (Colin Salmon), who seems a little appalled at Tennison's cavalier attitude toward their affair. He wants to be more than just her "black stud," and she wants to just get back to her job.
After all the fighting between Tennison and her staff during the George Marlow case (see Prime Suspect 1 for details), Jane has managed to whip her team into fighting shape. Good thing, too. A decomposing corpse has just been dug up behind the flat of an immigrant family in a section of London whose racial tensions make 1960s Watts look like Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Jane's boss, Mike Kernan (John Benfield), will accept no mistakes: he is up for promotion. And if he moves up, his job as superintendent might be open for Tennison.
In the second installment of the riveting Prime Suspect series, writer Allan Cubitt steps in for creator Lynda La Plant to craft a mystery with a social conscience. The shift in focus would be successful enough that all subsequent stories in the series would take on sociological texture (as opposed to the fairly traditional serial killer case Tennison solved in the first story). Tennison's struggle as a woman in a profession dominated by condescending and corrupt men is still in evidence though. But now the series throws in pornography, police brutality, and racial politics into the mix.
As Tennison pursues the white former tenant of the flat (Tom Watson), Kernan puts Bob Oswalde on the case in the hopes of diffusing some of the anger in the heavily Afro-Caribbean neighborhood where the murder took place. Oswalde quickly latches onto his own prime suspect, the twitchy teen next door (Fraser James), who clearly has a connection to the deceased girl. Oswalde is just as ambitious as Jane is, and just as conscious of the stares of his co-workers (his over race, hers over gender). Perhaps this is why they both desire and repel one another: they are too alike for any relationship to be less than a firestorm. Worse, working against one another leads to a nearly disastrous string of errors that causes the case to spiral out of control.
Do not worry, however. Tennison sees it through. She must, so that the series can go on. Prime Suspect 3 picks up after Jane has left Southampton Row for the Vice Squad after her promotion is rejected by the boys' club that runs the London police. She inherits Operation Contract, a scheme to trim the population of rent boys who prowl the London streets. These rent boys, underage male prostitutes, are pimped by the seedy James Jackson (David Thewlis).
When a rent boy is found burned to death in the home of a transvestite singer (Peter Capaldi) with whom he sought refuge, Tennison senses another major case on which to hang her career. The boy's trail leads to Jackson; Jackson's trail leads to local philanthropist Edward Parker-Jones (Ciarán Hinds). And Jones leads Jane through a convoluted course to a dangerous conspiracy within the upper ranks of the police department itself.
Series creator Lynda La Plante returns to script this third installment in the Prime Suspect series, adding the inspired twist of pairing Tennison up with her old nemesis from the Marlow case, detective Bill Otley (Tom Bell)—only this time Otley is actually on her side (but just as smarmy as ever). Jane can use all the help she can get, since this dark tale involves gay prostitution, pedophilia, and police cover-ups.
As always, Helen Mirren turns in a peerless performance for each of these episodes in the Prime Suspect series. HBO Video has made a dreadful mistake releasing these DVDs with no extras whatsoever, though. At least an interview with Mirren or La Plante would have been in order, or perhaps a look at how closely the series adheres to the real workings of the London police—although given its rather negative spin on the internal politics of that institution, I imagine the producers would get little cooperation on that front.
But even without any supplemental features, Prime Suspect 2 and Prime Suspect 3 are powerful showcases for one of Britain's finest actresses, two tense thrillers, and intriguing looks at a side of urban UK society that the tourist boards do not want you to see.
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