'Prime Suspect': Can Maria Bello Live Up to Helen Mirren?

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Odyssey Entertainment, Granada Television

This is the second installment in our series on American adaptations of British television. Read the first installment, "'Being Human': Syfy Remakes a British Hit."

Late on Wednesday, trade television publications began reporting that Maria Bello—a veteran of movies ranging from David Cronenberg's A History of Violence to The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor—was closing in on one of the best mainstream roles available for women in years. After a year of production problems, NBC's new programming director, Bob Greenblatt, finally gave his approval for a remake of Prime Suspect, the seminal British show about an ambitious, abrasive female police detective that ran from 1991 to 2006. Now the way is clear for Bello to snag the role that made Helen Mirren an icon: Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison.

On the surface, Prime Suspect looks like it should be a natural fit for an American remake. The show is a gritty police procedural, with some of the realism and attention to bureaucracy that made The Wire great. Many of the crimes Tennison solves involve the ugly and titillating combination of sex and violence that lend a charge to Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, the most vibrant of the remaining Law & Order spinoffs. But Prime Suspect is an important lesson in why sometimes it's the details that make a show, rather than the general concept—and why even getting the central detail of the lead actress isn't enough to guarantee a successful remake.

Jane Tennison isn't just any tough female cop. American television has plenty of those, usually leavened with some particular tenderness, and NBC wouldn't be remaking the show if there wasn't something particular and compelling about the character. But some of Tennison's verve and drive—as well as some of her less-attractive personality traits, which make her especially interesting—are the product not just of a talented writers' room but of her time.

One of the most important elements of Prime Suspect is its portrayal of pervasive and virulent institutional sexism. Tennison is the first woman in her precinct to rise so high, and the men she works with aren't subtle in their displeasure. In the first season, a younger male cop Tennison is working with persists in calling her "sir." "My voice suddenly got lower, has it?" she snaps back at him. "Maybe my knickers are too tight. Listen, I like to be called Governor or the Boss. I don't like ma'am—I'm not the bloody Queen. So take your pick." "Yes, ma'am," he replies, deadpan.

The harassment is very much a product of 1991, the year the first season of the show aired. In the 20 years since, American police procedural shows almost always feature casts that are comfortably integrated by race and gender. Their differences provide countervailing points of view in cases that involve major societal issues, but for the most part, the characters exist in close partnerships and teams. The workplace issues Tennison faces in the original series are the product of a very particular moment in time, and they're integral to the show's overall arc. But her fellow officers' hostility, and her precinct's refusal to act, run counter to American audiences' expectations for police shows, and might seem anachronistic two decades after Tennison first confronted them.

And Tennison is no ordinary victim, and for television, no ordinary woman. One of the most memorable moments of the show is one of the quietest: in the third season of the show, she makes a doctor's appointment for an abortion without emotional agonizing that normally accompanies such decisions on television. That decision and her means of making it are so striking that last summer, when a character on Friday Night Lights actually went through with an abortion, Prime Suspect was one of the only shows television writers could think of where a woman made a similar decision. It's hard to imagine the remake replicating that scene, and Tennison's calm about it, without occasioning the kind of protests from social conservatives that most networks (unless they're MTV, promoting a society-tweaking show like Skins or Jersey Shore) abhor.

Even when her decisions aren't touching on culture wars issues, Tennison can be quite unsympathetic personally. Hers is not Jimmy McNulty's charming drunkenness, though the series does ultimately reveal Tennison to be an alcoholic. And the show resolutely refuses to blame Tennison's failed relationships on some sort of trauma or low self-esteem. Sometimes Tennison simply behaves badly because that's what real people do, as she does in the second season when she has a brief affair with a younger black detective who comes to believe she is using him. Tennison isn't an anti-hero like Patty Hewes on Damages—she's closer to Kima Greggs, the sometimes-prickly, flawed detective on The Wire, except less likable. Whether NBC has the courage to preserve Tennison's nature is an open, and essential, question.

Prime Suspect is such a product of its place and time that it's hard to believe a remake, even one that preserves the show's basic details and brassy, blonde female lead, will actually reproduce effectively the things that made the show great. Maria Bello is a smart, flinty actress when she wants to be. But someone else already has the role of a lifetime she landed on Wednesday. Jane Tennison will always be Helen Mirren.