Policewoman Heats Up TV

TOUGH television - that describes the three-part "MYSTERY!" series, "Prime Suspect" that begins tonight on PBS.

Raw energy and a hard-nosed, coarse realism distinguishes this British police drama from fast-paced, slick action-adventures. It can be painful to watch, dealing as it does with serial murder, and some viewers may take offense at the strong language and some of the explicit medical and police procedures the story includes.

Still, there is something interesting going on here - a denial of titillating sensationalism despite a sensational subject, and more interesting yet, a layered characterization of a woman detective as she struggles not only with the murder investigation, but with her colleagues' prejudices.

The real drama at work here concerns a woman, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, who is smart, ruthless, and tenacious enough to scale the "power tower" of a male-dominated profession.

The filmmakers have gone to some trouble to show us what it takes to survive in so harsh an environment without turning their heroine into a female version of Dirty Harry.

When Tennison (Helen Mirren) cries in frustration and instantly regains control of herself, we read that as strength. But seeing a woman take on the responsibilities usually assigned to men in the movies (one recent exception being Jody Foster's portrayal of an FBI trainee assigned to a serial murder case in "Silence of the Lambs") gives one pause.

In fact, police work can be harsh, demanding, and unforgiving, and Tennison wades through the muck with the best of them.

Writer Lynda La Plante even slyly implies that sometimes a policewoman has an advantage in certain investigations.

As the story opens, a woman has been found murdered. The police locate a suspect almost at once, but the chief inspector in charge of the case dies suddenly, so Tennison marches into the superintendent's office and demands the case.

Much resented among her male colleagues, she meets with outright sabotage of her best efforts - especially orchestrated by her sergeant, whose petty machinations almost manage to oust Tennison from the case. But her single-minded drive unravels the facts around a series of sexual murders and links them to one killer.

Tennison is no super woman and no role model, either. You don't have to like her or want to emulate her to realize she has something valuable to contribute. You respect her and want her to succeed, but she is egotistical and self-centered.

She can be petty and scrappy with fellow officers, too. She dodges the superintendent - who wants to dismiss her - by hiding in the women's room until he leaves the office.

In Tennison's reasoning, the end justifies the means, because this maneuver buys her time to find more evidence to prove her case.

Then, too, you have to like her style as she handles her detractors first with an iron fist, and then with teasing good humor.

The role of Tennison is complex enough to be worthy of the classically trained, ever forceful and intelligent, Ms. Mirren. Viewers will remember her many excellent BBC performances and her roles in films like "Excalibur,2010,The Mosquito Coast,White Nights," and two highly controversial films, "The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover," and "The Comfort of Strangers."

Mirren's distinguished stage work with, among others, the Royal Shakespeare Company, has given her performances depth, richness, and realism. In Jane Tennison, Mirren says she found a challenge.

"One thing I loved about the character is that she is not sentimentalized at all," Mirren said in a telephone interview from New Orleans.

Mirren researched the project carefully, spending time in a police station and especially with two women detectives.

"It was so important not to play glamour. I wanted her to be believable. It was important to get the costumes exactly right and the look. Policewomen have to be extremely careful about what they wear and how they look. They can't look too glamorous, nor too dowdy.

Prime Suspect' is written very strongly from the point of view of a woman," continues Mirren, "but it's not a political piece. I think men found it just as absorbing as women did. That was a great triumph. [Writer La Plante] is fairly critical in her attitude, but she didn't hit you over the head with it.

"That was the very reason I liked it, too. I don't personally respond to a very polemical attitude. Men don't respond to it.... Even when you're right, you've got to use wit to get through to them."

Before this role, Mirren says, she had never been very sympathetic to the police. But research opened her eyes in more ways than one.

"There are many extraordinary people in the police force fighting against terrible odds. So it was very important for me to do the research and find out what it was like from the inside, and what would draw people into doing it. And, of course, the minute you do that, you come up with so much more respect and sympathy for the people doing the job."

What did she most love about the project, particularly after all her work in film?

"I like to say the English film industry is alive and well and living on TV. You can do things in much more detail than you can in film. In 'Prime Suspect' the story unfolds over four hours, so you have much more opportunity for story development, for character development, for filling in the background - all of which makes the story that much richer. You can explore areas without this harsh world of commerce constantly knocking at your door." The Granada Television production airs Thursdays beginning Jan. 23; Check local PBS listings.

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