Time again for film critic Bob Mondello's recommendation for your home-viewing queue. This week, to prepare for the start of NBC's new TV series Prime Suspect, he suggests you look back at the original PBS series, starring Helen Mirren.
The year was 1991, and a new British police procedural had what then counted as a gimmick: Its star — smart, forceful, and assertive — was a woman, which was a big deal.
With a metropolitan police survey showing surveys showing that "90 percent of the time, the general public would prefer a male officer," Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison practically had to beg her superiors to let her lead a homicide case. And once she got it, she had to tamp down rebellion in the department's testosterone-fueled ranks.
Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison grew with the series, but was from the start a bit of a klutz in her personal life. Alienating boyfriends, drinking too much, she was somehow in over her head with the domestic stuff that her colleagues just assumed women were good at. At work though, Tennison always had to be the toughest "guy" in the room, even when that room was the morgue.
The series must've had a really good casting director, because you keep seeing faces that would later be famous — a skinny youngster in a leather jacket, for instance, who plays the boyfriend of the victim in the first episode. It's Ralph Fiennes, pre-Schindler's List, pre-English Patient, pre-everything really; it was his first appearance on screen.
The series got darker across 15 years, and dealing with prostitutes, pedophiles and torturers took its toll. Jane Tennison never got to have a family of her own, but she's got plenty of descendants in the women who might not have gone into law enforcement had she not gone there first: Temperance Brennan in Bones. Brenda Leigh Johnson in The Closer. And now Jane Timoney (Maria Bello) in the new Prime Suspect, who has some mighty big shoes to fill.