Cor, 'guv, Judge Mike Pinsky'll put you up inna nick if ya miss copper Jane Tennison's la'est adventures.
Our reviews of Prime Suspect 1 (published January 19th, 2004), Prime Suspect 2 And 3 (published June 1st, 2004), Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness (published August 11th, 2004), and Prime Suspect: Complete Collection (published August 19th, 2010) are also available.
"That bloody Jane Tennison, she'll be storming into your nick, the balls of your best officers trailing from her jaws, spraying people with claret, calling people Masons, threatening resignation! Well, I just wanted to tell you I'm not a complete maniac. No, I'm a good cop."—DS Tennison (Helen Mirren) to DCS Ballinger (John McArdle)
After three complex and traumatic cases for England's toughest female cop, Jane Tennison, the producers of the Prime Suspect series seemed slightly at a loss where to focus their social commentary. In Tennison's first major case, she tackled a serial killer while battling the boys' club that ran the London Metropolitan Police. In her second case, racial politics and tensions in the immigrant community complicated a brutal murder. In her third case, Tennison joined the vice squad to fight child exploitation, gay prostitution, and police corruption. So what next?
Why not just let Jane solve some routine cases? That seems to be the mandate behind the formula-breaking fourth installment in the Prime Suspect series. Prime Suspect 4 is really three complete, separate cases, each running one episode (about 100 minutes) rather than as a full miniseries. In "The Lost Child," Jane Tennison finally gets her coveted promotion to superintendent and is eager to get to work. So eager in fact, she will not let getting an abortion delay her from her first day any longer than necessary. Snappy suits and a close haircut notwithstanding, Jane is still the same bullying, obsessive, and impulsive career cop she has always been.
Her first case as superintendent is a doozy: a baby girl is kidnapped and murdered. The evidence points to child molester Chris Hughes (Robert Glenister). Hughes, in a panic and protesting his innocence, escapes from police custody and takes his girlfriend and her two daughters hostage. Things move quickly in this episode, the result of having less time to develop the plot and supporting characters. As a result, the tale lacks a compelling villain in Hughes. The hostage situation is dramatic enough, but where earlier Prime Suspect stories work to develop Jane Tennison as a complex character, here she is pretty much all business.
This is even truer of the next episode, "Inner Circles," where Jane really gets no personal time. At least in "The Lost Child," you could see Helen Mirren playing off Jane's ambivalence over her abortion while dealing with a child-related crime. This next case is a straightforward whodunit with a few touches of class conflict. A wealthy member of the country club set dies of what looks like autoerotic asphyxiation. But was Denis Carradine (Gareth Forwood) murdered? And if so, who did it: the poor, drug-dealing scum from the nearby projects, or his own rich friends? Again, this case is much like the average television crime drama—and Prime Suspect never used to be satisfied with being merely average.
The series tries to get back to its roots in the third episode, "The Scent of Darkness." For four years, George Marlow (John Bowe) has brooded in his prison cell over his capture by Jane Tennison (see Prime Suspect 1) while brushing up on his appeals. When a copycat killer dumps a pair of murdered women stuffed into bags, Marlow sees a way to prove his professed innocence. After all, Tennison must have gotten the wrong man, right?
Marlow is not the only one to think so. In order to vindicate herself, Tennison searches for a serial killer with a penchant for gardenia perfume, and her superiors sneak around behind her back to reinvestigate the Marlow case and find ways to sabotage her career. Unfortunately, Marlow has never been a sinister enough villain (a killer, yes, but no criminal mastermind, as this makes him out to be) for the story to work. What results is another standard whodunit that lacks the sociological subtext of the better episodes.
After the missteps of Prime Suspect 4, the producers got back on track for the next miniseries, Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement. Yes, I know there is an extra "e" there. Blame Granada Television. Anyway, this fifth series is the best of the lot so far.
Even as Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison has fought the bad guys, her inability to play politics has cost her much. After her insubordination in "The Scent of Darkness," Jane finds herself transferred from London to working-class Manchester. Petty crime and drugs are so commonplace that no one even cares to stop them, and after 22 years at the job, Jane, too, finds it hard to muster any enthusiasm.
Gangs rule the town with impunity. The fearless and flamboyant boss of crime in Manchester is Clive "The Street" Norton (Steven Mackintosh). The locals adore him, and the police are powerless against him. When a low-level soldier in The Street's crew is shot, Jane starts bullying her staff to find the killer. Within minutes, Tennison and Norton are on a first-name basis, trading sarcastic quips and circling like rival lions.
Prime Suspect 5 not only returns the series to form with a gritty examination of street crime in a working class neighborhood, but it pits Jane Tennison in a battle of wills with a shrewd and charismatic villain. The Street is a wonderful creation. Writer Guy Andrews also manages to give Tennison an equally memorable team of detectives this time out: laconic Jerry Rankine (David O'Hara), temperamental Claire Devanny (Julia Lane), and her new boss Martin Ballinger (John McArdle).
In the last series, Jane's personal life was actually going fairly well. Here, she is back to making terrible personal decisions. She hops into bed with her boss. She rejects the confession of a frightened teen (Joseph Jacobs), who turns into yet another victim. And her personal war with The Street may destroy them both.
As always, the Prime Suspect series comes from HBO Video with no extras. Subtitles would have been particularly welcome, as the thick northern accents in Prime Suspect 5 are occasionally tough to puzzle out. While the three episodes of Prime Suspect 4 may meander from the show's winning formula, Prime Suspect 5 proves that Jane Tennison is far from through fighting crime. We look forward to more of her exploits in years to come.
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