Sunday, June 25, 2017

Arrested Development

After hitting it big with its 1960s-set police drama, Endeavour, a prequel to the long-running Inspector Morse, British broadcaster ITV decided to try mining the history of yet another familiar small-screen sleuth, London Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, who was played so memorably by Helen Mirren throughout the 1991-2006 procedural series Prime Suspect. The resulting program, titled Prime Suspect: Tennison and starring 20-something actress Stefanie Martini, is scheduled to begin a three-episode run tonight as part of PBS-TV’s Masterpiece Mystery! lineup, beginning at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

Wikipedia summarizes this series—“which is set primarily in Hackney”—by saying that it “portrays a young Jane Tennison … as she begins her career as a WPC [Woman Police Constable] with the Metropolitan Police Service in 1973. The series is set at a time when women were beginning to be gradually integrated into the police force. In a workplace dominated by chauvinistic male police officers, Tennison assists in the investigation of the murder of a young prostitute. Tennison has to deal with sexism, as well as difficulties in her home life as her family disapprove of her career choice.”

The story is based on Tennison, a 2015 novel by Lynda La Plante, who created the original Prime Suspect. Unfortunately, ITV’s hope that La Plante would also script its prequel drama fell through as a result of “creative differences” between the author and the television producers. That unhappy twist might now be portrayed as a forewarning of further troubles. While Prime Suspect: Tennison (called Prime Suspect 1973 in the UK) has won plaudits from some critics for its portrayal of “the dingy 1970s London milieu” and for dutifully sourcing the woes (rage, loneliness, hard drinking) that will bedevil Tennison as she rises through the ranks, others have been far less generous. When it was broadcast this last spring in Great Britain, The Guardian knocked this drama’s sometimes clunky dialogue and its cast of characters, which it called “mere ciphers compared with their counterparts” in Mirren’s Prime Suspect. More recently, The New York Times denounced replacement screenwriter Glen Laker’s decision to make “Tennison’s crime-solving instincts … consistently infallible” and “the script’s narrow focus on prequelizing. It doesn’t have any ideas beyond establishing the endemic sexism Tennison will still be facing 20 years on, and connecting dots to her later alcoholism (in three different scenes) and bad decisions about sex.” Meanwhile, Salon’s Melanie McFarland disparaged this program’s emphasis on the criminal case at hand rather than Tennison’s character. “Because of this,” she wrote, “little is illuminated about Jane Tennison’s early years, effectively negating its value as a prequel.”

Even in the face of such carping, ITV insists in a statement that it is “grateful to Lynda La Plante for allowing us to adapt her brilliant book Tennison, and we were very happy with how Prime Suspect 1973 performed and the audience reaction to the series.” Yet the network announced last month that it would deny the show a second season. The existing episodes—six as shown in the UK, but three 90-minute installments in the U.S.—are all that viewers will be able to enjoy. People who want to learn more about Jane Tennison’s early years will have to search out La Plante’s novels. Since 2015’s Tennison, she has composed two sequels: Hidden Killers (2016) and Good Friday (to be released this August in the UK by Zaffre).

Prime Suspect: Tennison will continue as part of Masterpiece Mystery! through the next two Sundays, July 2 and 9, following fresh installments of Grantchester. Watch a video trailer for the series here.

1 comment:

Derek Thompson said...

I think it works well as a standalone police drama, even if it found critics as a prequel.