Early-season check-in: Prime Suspect

Over the next week or so, I’m hoping to check in with a number of the fall’s new series. Most have aired half-dozen or so episodes by now, so it feels like a fine time to see what they’ve improved on, if anything, since the pilot. These pieces won’t be too long, but they will still be good. Obviously. Up next: Prime Suspect

I hadn’t kept up with Prime Suspect after pretty much hating the pilot episode, but thanks to NBC’s decision to air the first four episodes all this week in what was known as both “Prime Suspect Week” and “The Most Underwhelming Television Event, Ever,” I’m now all caught up on the new police drama. And while I still don’t love the series, I think I am happy that I caught up with Prime Suspect and have no problem watching more episodes of it moving forward. It’s just a solid series that has done a nice job of moving away for the pilot’s weakness (the out-of-touch sexism) and towards its strengths (most notably, the cast).

In today’s television landscape, it’s going to be difficult to stick out with a series about murder detectives in New York City. That’s about as simple and straightforward as you can get, but it’s also not buzzworthy or attention-getting, especially if you’re stuck at 10 p.m. on NBC, a network with no marketing weight or ability to build new programming. The CSI:’s of the world have cornered and diluted the market on “process” series and NCIS and The Mentalist make the best of the more lighthearted, action-y kind of storytelling. There’s not a whole lot of room to appear original, but Prime Suspect making the best of a generally bad situation by turning its attention away from the crimes themselves and more towards the workplace and interactions between the characters.

Don’t get it twisted, though, it’s not like Prime Suspect is the first cop series to take a lot of time to develop the bonds and explore the tensions between various members of a force. Hill Street Blues set the stage and countless other programs, from NYPD: Blue to Homicide, furthered the kind of character-based police drama that can be very engaging and compelling. However, I do like the ways in which Prime Suspect is building up its characters and the world that they populate on a weekly basis.

This is still very much Maria Bello’s series and the series’ production team has done a fine job of giving her Jane complicated things to do, but the post-pilot episodes, especially the last two, feature improved representations for the male characters involved as well. And perhaps most importantly, the men aren’t as defined by their cumbersome sexism and alpha-male behavior; a few of them feel like legitimately real, complicated individuals.

While the pilot episode wrenched (or at least tried to) a lot of workplace drama from the male’s intimidation and mostly vicious harassment of Jane, the rest of the episodes have made it a much more open playing field where the guys crack jokes about “their own kind” just as much, if not more, than they do about Jane. In last night’s episode, she was more like the straight-man to the somewhat goofy jokes and jabs Velerio (Damon Gupton) was throwing at Duffy (Brian O’Byrne) about the jinx and the need to have a brujo cleansing. That’s not something I would have expected to happen after watching the troublesome pilot.

Additionally, the series has done a nice job of separating Jane in her own personal stories involving her family or whatnot, which allows episodes to randomly drop in on the guys trying to figure out what kind of pizza they want before Calderon (Kirk Acevedo) eventually just decides that they all get pepperoni. I wouldn’t say that Prime Suspect is hilarious in a traditional sense, but it knows how to mine the characters’ rigid personalities and their dangerous, stiff jobs for contextual humor. O’Bryne, Acevedo, Gupton and Tim Griffin are all solid comedic performers when called upon to be so and I think all the guys have a fun chemistry. Loosening up the gentlemen not only makes Prime Suspect more enjoyable, it makes it more natural and believable.

Maria Bello is still the best thing about Prime Suspect. This version doesn’t seem too interested in making her as self-destructive as the UK version did with Helen Mirren’s character (from what I understand of it, anyway), but it is still committed in exploring what makes her tick and how that makes her such a good detective. The scenes between Jane and her father (played by Peter Gerety) are always lovely and informative and last night’s episode provided some solid details into Jane’s past thanks to a fun little guest spot from Peter Berg. This is still a police procedural, but Prime Suspect has quickly fixed its pilot’s biggest mistakes and started to focus more on the characters, which is the best thing it could have ever done. Suspect isn’t a great series and it probably won’t last long enough to get to become one, but there just might be something fantastic kicking around it in there – and I’m now willing to go along for the ride until NBC has no choice to kill it because 2.5 million people are watching.

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