It is nearly impossible for the reviewer not to compare Above Suspicion with Prime Suspect. Both shows were created and largely written by Lynda La Plante, their protagonists are both young, inexperienced but intuitive and very ambitious police women tackling high-profile murder cases. Both protagonists likewise have to battle sexism, incompetence, and politics on the job.
Both series are also very enjoyable though it must be said Above Suspicion (and its lead character and the actress who plays her) are no Prime Suspect (nor Jane Tennyson, nor Helen Mirren) in terms of quality, ambition, and cultural influence. Prime Suspect is a masterpiece of murder mystery - it changed the way crime dramas are made and shall influence the genre forevermore. It made Helen Mirren an international star and her portrayal of DCI Jane Tennyson has become iconic.
Above Suspicion owes a lot to that show, but ultimately feels like a softer, lamer imitation of it. That isn’t to say it isn’t without its charms, in fact it's really quite enjoyable to watch but it doesn’t have quite the depth or impact that Prime Suspect accomplished over its seven seasons.
Chief amongst those charms is Kelly Reilly’s portrayal of DC Anna Travis. She’s younger and prettier than Mirren’s Tennyson ever was. Softer too, and more emotional. Her ambition burns just as bright, though she isn’t always as self-assured, nor quite ready to handle the more gut-wrenching aspects of the job. In fact, on day one of her first big case we see her vomit at the sight of the murder victim on site and then faint in the morgue when the body is laid out. But in time she proves herself quite capable and more than once she saves the day.
The times have changed as well. Jane Tennyson had to battle sexism at every turn, constantly having to prove herself as a police officer against an endless supply of men who figured she was no use to them except for providing coffee and a quick toss. Anna Travis has something to prove but that’s more because she’s inexperienced than because of her sex. The show is loaded with capable female characters and even the commander is a woman. Yet there is still plenty of sexism to combat as seemingly every man with a pulse hits on her or asks her to dinner.
Her biggest difficulty on the job, other than finding the murderers, is her direct boss DCI James Langton (Ciarán Hinds.) He’s an old school copper who rose through the ranks the hard way, values hard work over politics, and tends to ask his female staff to grab him drinks and sandwiches (no tomatoes, thanks.) He gives Travis a bit of slack out of respect for her dad who was natural police, but is quick to let her know how much he expects of her.
If all this sounds like your standard crime drama back drop that’s because it is. Above Suspicion runs the well-worn treadway that Prime Suspect created so many years ago and that has been trod upon so many times since. But it does it well enough with enough entertainment value that I never really minded.
The cases are also well-worn cliches of the genre. There’s the serial killer violently murdering prostitutes, the sadistic copycat murderer reenacting the famous Black Dahlia case, and the criminal mastermind who gets extensive facial surgery to keep from getting caught. They don’t do anything particularly original with the material either, but Reilly, Hinds, and the rest of the cast keep it well worth watching.
The handling of social commentary is clunky. At times the show frowns upon the general sexism of Travis’ coworkers as she usually rebuffs their advances, yet at the same time the camera all too often lingers on her body, especially her legs as if to titillate the audience. Now I’m a warm-blooded male and she does have lovely legs, but if one of the points you are making is that men shouldn’t make sexual advances towards coworkers, then perhaps your camera shouldn’t either.
Likewise, the relationship between Travis and Langston is at first handled poorly. At times, he is harsh with her and grouses at her bungling the case and the next moment he’s sending her to Spain to handle an important lead. By the second season, they’ve smoothed most of that out but it's a bit jarring in that first season.
I will admit after the first half of the first series I was a bit worried I’d chosen poorly picking this entire series to review, but after that, it got better and I got used to the characters. I found myself looking forward to each episode more and more.
In the typical British fashion, Above Suspicion’s seasons (or series if you prefer) are short, containing only a handful of episodes each and they tend to contain but one story a piece (Season One contains two full stories, but the rest only have one.) That’s four total stories told each lasting roughly 2.5 hours per story told over three episodes.
This set contains all of the episodes in the series. Each season contains a 20-30 minute behind-the-scenes feature or a Q&A with the stars and show creator, plus the usual EPK bits. These are interesting and fun to watch but none go particularly deep.
Above Suspicion treads similar ground as countless other crime dramas and fans of Prime Suspect will immediately get a deja vu sort-of feeling. It does nothing to elevate the genre or rise above the fold, but for what it does, it does well. For fans of crime dramas and detective shows, it's well worth checking out.