Imagine my thrill when I found out that Lynda LaPlante, the writer behind the fantastic Prime Suspect starring the sumptuous and stern Helen Mirren, was penning a new female-driven series based on her character DC Anna Travis.
When it was first broadcast in 1991 Prime Suspect signaled a new era of procedural police drama with strong characters and great story texture. Helen Mirren played Jane Tennison a no-nonsense DCI whose ambitions was constantly being thwarted by a misogynist system. Twenty years on it’s shocking to see the blatant sexism which was common practice and is portrayed with great clarity. Note all the scenes where Tennison is the only female in a room, whether it’s with co-workers, interviewees or criminals, and the post-workday drink that her male co-workers share, she is never invited. The misogyny isn’t restricted to the workplace but filters through society as a whole as the male police officers often confront female witnesses with contempt and Tennison constantly struggles with juggling her personal life and her career, her domestic struggles with her partner (a wonderful glimpse of Tom Wilkinson) is fraught with negotiations and tension. Helen Mirren played her strong yet vulnerable; human.
From the first scene of Above Suspicion I sensed that this series definitely was not on the same track, and more importantly had veered considerably far off road. In one of our first glimpse of Travis she is seen as awkwardly treading through a muddy crime scene wearing her black designer shoes and trendy black miniskirt. Instant warning. Why isn’t she better prepared? Why does she show up at a crime scene looking like she is a secretary for corporation law firm? And it goes on because most of Kelly Reilly’s, who incidentally was in Prime Suspect 4, close ups seems to consist of her throwing her fashionably mussed and gloriously red hair about and pouting her lips. I think she definitely has screen presence and hints of acting chops but they are hard to locate in this particular outing. This time main female is just a vulnerable little girl, who occasionally has some insights, trying to survive in the big bad world.
Now let us turn to the wonderful Ciarán Hinds, no stranger to Lynda LaPlante either as he played a central character in Prime Suspect 3, who has spent most of his career under the radar. A long time inhabitant of the stage he got his film start in the infamous Excalibur which also brought us the talent of Gabriel Byrne and Liam Neeson. Since then he has mostly been in the shadows as a supporting player. A man of quiet intensity his slightest move, as shown in the fantastic Persuasion, can be instantly engaging. But he has another side to him which he pulls out of the bag, for reasons which elude me, with some frequency: The shouty strong-man. I tend to blame this streak on the Hollywood mentality where everything bigger is obviously better rather rather than on him as an actor, because the talent is most certainly there in spades. DCI Langton, his character in Above Suspicion, is unfortunately grounded in this method. Abrasive, testy and loud, really loud. Yes, the character is all of those things but it can be brought out in other ways than constant shouting.
The main problem that I have with it is that this personification makes his characters instantly less interesting in almost every case, even boring. He is infinitely more talented than that. There is a wonderful little scene in the first series of Above Suspicion where he has burst into Travis’ house to berate her, he does that a lot. After a solid thrashing there is an awkward silence and all of a sudden his eyes drop down, almost embarrassingly and he says: “God, you smell nice” in the softest of voices. That little line is far more effective than any number of the shouty speeches we have heard from him up to that point.
Not satisfied with the TV experience of Above Suspicion I made a point of picking up the first two novels of the series. Although not the best examples of the crime genre the are mildly more interesting as the sexual relationship of Travis and Langton is present from the first book (has barely started in the second TV series), Travis is portrayed as infinitely more intuitive (obviously thinking with her brain and not her hair) and slightly more awkward, plus the secondary characters get more room to breathe. However, I am still mildly annoyed at how infantile the Travis character can sometimes be and at the unnecessary length of the novel, nothing happens quite a lot. However, I am intrigued by one thing and that is the replacement of the independent profiler, whom Langton is supposedly sleeping with, in the original Red Dahlia to the role of the Commander in the TV series. It does give an interesting spin on Langton sleeping with his boss to get a leg up on the investigation, however it does annoy me how we never questions the fact that he is in charge of that relationship as well. The pure Alpha-male.
When all of these factors are added up one cannot help but feel that this significantly lowers the quality of the show, doesn’t help that it’s based on fairly shoddy writing. In stead of being the intellectually engaging experience of Prime Suspect this newest venture is lowered into being a run-of-the mill shlock. Although never boring it’s only mildly entertaining and it’s doubtful that I had ever watched the series if Ciarán Hinds had not been in a starring role. Recently it was announced that a third series had been given go signal and, ever the optimist, I have some hopes although I have a sinking feeling that it’s going to be much of the same. Shame.
I commented earlier that it is shocking to see the blatant and cruel misogyny that thrived twenty years ago but what is possibly even more shocking is that today the Tennisons have almost disappeared from the screens completely and have been replaced by younger sex-kittenish Travis models set in a world which might have more female characters but they are more often than not pushed to the sidelines, as lower-ranked officers, hookers or murder victims.