Exploration of sexism adds to terrific 'Prime Suspect'

January 23, 1992|By David Zurawik

PRIME SUSPECT" is the TV thriller of the year.

The four-part British-import, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channels 22 and 67, has memorable characters, rich detail of cops in squad rooms and bedrooms -- and it just never lets up in the suspense department. One other thing: "Prime Suspect" is surely the most intelligent and multifaceted dramatic exploration of sexism ever seen on American television. Ever.

There is a murder and an investigation to find the murderer. This is, after all, part of the PBS "Mystery" lineup. The film opens with the finding of the body of a prostitute in a London apartment. Police believe they know who killed her.

But that search is peripheral to the real suspense, which centers on the police inspector who comes to be placed in charge of the investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, played by Helen Mirren with an edge that makes Candace Bergen's Murphy Brown seem like a Twinkie.

The suspense is to see whether she can solve the crime and hold onto her job despite a male boss who hates her and male underlings who are doing their best to sabotage her investigation and have her thrown off the case.

The male animosity -- especially that of Detective Sgt. Bill Otley (Tom Bell) -- is so powerful it becomes a character in its own right, a malevolent being waiting for her to slip up or show the slightest weakness so it can savage her professionally. Oh, yeah, this is the kind of gender-in-the-workplace stuff American TV has not yet found the nerve to talk about.

American TV has not yet found the nerve to create a character like Detective Tennison either. For one thing, she chain smokes. Only "bad" women chain smoke in American TV shows. For another thing, despite all the blood and guts and back stabbing in the squad room, she seems to find real fulfillment in her work. There is no suggestion that she's somehow incomplete as a woman just because she doesn't have a traditional family to whom she can play supermom.

She does have a life outside the office. She lives with a man who seems like just about a perfect guy -- smart, understanding, tender. But his patience starts wearing very thin as she becomes more and more involved at the office and distracted at home. The nature of their relationship is brilliantly articulated in a bedroom scene that reverses traditional roles.

Meanwhile, back on the streets of London, it looks like Detective Tennison might have a serial killer on her hands instead of the suspect she believes did the killing. . . .

The folks at PBS know what a terrific series this is. Instead of one hour, they are giving viewers two hours of "Prime Suspect" tonight. The last two hours of the four-hour series will air the next two Thursdays at 9.

I am not a big fan of British television. I think much of it is wildly overrated, and I can make a pretty good case for my position. But, if you feel that way, don't let it steer you off "Prime Suspect." Miss this and you are missing one of the most interesting characters and rewarding TV experiences of the year.

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