At the time Prime Suspect first aired In 1991, there were only four female DCIs (Detective Chief Inspector) working in London. Jackie Malton was one of them and it is her story that show creator Lynda La Plante took as inspiration for the series.
The fictional Jane Tennison (played to perfection by Helen Mirren) is a fierce, driven, hard-nosed, hard-boiled police officer who has clawed, scraped, and bloodied her way to the rank of DCI and spends the rest of the series fighting against sexism, politics, institutionalized racism, and her own personality to stay there and eventually rank even higher.
The show existed over seven seasons. All but Season 4 consisted of two episodes lasting just under 3.5 hours in total which covered one major crime. Season 4 consisted of three 102-minute episodes, which were divided into three separate stories. The first five seasons were produced at regular intervals, spaced approximately 18 months apart, but then there was a nearly a seven-year gap between Season 5 and 6 (with 7 picking up nearly three years after that.)
The mysteries are very well done. There are enough twists and turns to keep even the biggest whodunit fan guessing until the end. Likewise, the procedural aspects are engrossing and realistic. The cops are not superheroes; no one possesses any god-like powers of detection that allow them to solve the cases without loads of legwork. In fact, the police are all very human – good at their jobs – but full of everyday flaws and prejudices like any other working stiff.
All of these aspects are worth watching the series for, but the real draw is Tennyson (and by extension Mirren) herself. Over the course of seven seasons, 15 years, and more then 20 hours of drama, we get to know the character extremely well. Tennyson is driven by her desire to both solve horrible crimes but also to win. She wants to beat the killers and prove herself to her colleagues and her bosses. She has a singular focus that pushes her to work the job as hard as possible for as long as it takes. She expects no less from her team, which causes a great deal of friction between her and her underlings. She doesn’t care to know anybody personally and has a tendency to be quite curt when dealing with her staff, and her bosses.
She is an excellent detective but she is not without her flaws. Sometimes her drive to win causes her to push the case against an innocent person; at other times, she lets someone go, which then causes even more violence to occur. Her personal life is perpetually in shambles with no real friends or romantic relationships to speak of (though there are plenty of lovers) and she more and more turns to the drink (something the show makes more explicit in later seasons.) She is tougher than most of the men she works with and yet there are multiple moments when we see her pull to the side and cry.
Truly she is one of the most nuanced and memorable female characters seen on television in its history. Mirren’s portrayal is nigh on perfect. She is the consummate actress and this is her greatest role.
Prime Suspect is an excellent series and ought to be seen by anyone who is interested in what the medium can do and certainly is a must-see for all mystery fans. It does admittedly feel a bit dated watching it now. Many of its themes – sexism, racism, corruption – while certainly still relevant are handled in a manner that seems a bit quaint by today’s standards. Likewise the production quality can be a bit dodgy. As an example I’m currently watching Broadchurch – another British crime import – and the production values on it from the sets to the direction to the expensive look of nearly everything is miles above what you see in Prime Suspect. In reality, this has less to do with Prime Suspect‘s values and more to do with the amount of money television channels were willing to spend on shows at the time. At any rate, while this is mildly distracting, the exceptional quality of everything else more than makes up for it.
The video looks quite good. For comparison, I pulled out the old DVD sets of the series and the high definition looks remarkably better. However – mostly due to the aged nature of the original television-quality film – there are quite a few very noticeable scenes in which the picture looks dirty, degraded, and old. For Seasons 1-5, the aspect ratios have changed. They were originally broadcast in the traditional TV format of 1.33:1 but have now been changed to 1.78:1. Because the show was initially shot on Super16 photography, the negatives contain quite a bit of additonal image on the left and right of the screen that was cut out for the initial television run – much of this has now been added back. Ultimately, the change has very little impact on the overall viewing experience. The audio is fine though your stereo system is certainly not going to get a workout. Overall, it is a fine upgrade, but it isn’t a set that anybody will be using to show off their system.
The special features include two behind-the-scenes features, a photo gallery, and some trailers for other Acorn Media-related products. The two features were previously produced and were released on the Season 6 and 7 sets, respectively.
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