My Contemporary British TV Detectives



I only hear bad things about the new American take on Prime Suspect. Too bad, because I only say good things about the original series. Prime Suspect defined the contemporary police procedural. It had two runs, first during the ’90s, then beginning again in 2004. Its star was Helen Mirren, who is #6 in my list of favorite contemporary British TV detectives, for creating Detective Chief Inspector Tennison, a temperamental, ambitious, alcoholic, brass-knuckled, high-minded, susceptible, careerist bull sergeant.

Long before The Wire came along, Prime Suspect exposed the mental ant-farms of both criminals and police. The stories were great (top-notch casting), and also lasted very long, three hours or so, which is a feast for those of us in the Netflix age, who binge on crime stories in six-hour spells with no commercial breaks.

Though perhaps that only applies to me and my wife.

Back in 2003, Nancy Banks-Smith wrote admiringly in the Guardian of Prime Suspect, “You could happily sit and watch the play of expression on Helen Mirren's face while bodies pile up unregarded.” (I found the quote in Dana Stevens's thorough Prime Suspect appreciation.) I’m reminded of Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait by Philippe Parreno and Douglas Gordon (he of 24 Hour Psycho). In the film, they tracked the great French soccer player, and pretty much only him, with 17 synchronized cameras over the course of one match. That type of close portraiture gives to the viewer, in miniature, an experience akin to watching all of Prime Suspect in a condensed period of time—as Mirren adds wrinkle, wink, and worry to Inspector Tennison, something almost superhuman materializes on the screen.




Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin

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