Jane Tennison returns to foil another 'Prime Suspect'

February 11, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

The sleeper of last year's TV season -- Helen Mirren in "Prime Suspect" -- is back tonight in another four-part murder case. And, outside of some silly out-of-sync censoring by the gang that can't shoot straight at PBS, it's another brilliant, knock-'em-dead, wow of a performance.

If you missed last year's four-parter and its replay last month on PBS, be prepared to be bowled over by the actress and the writing, not to mention a nasty little murder involving the discovery of a girl's body buried in a suburban garden.

In "Prime Suspect 2," at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison is back in her little tailored suits and her tidy little haircut, cutting a mighty big swathe through the squad room and murder scenes with her enormous intelligence. This is a program that concentrates not so much on crime as it does criminal catching. You can almost hear Tennison's brain hum as she connects the dots.

It was a refreshing TV experience last year to see this 40-ish woman, who looks 40-ish or more, be nervous, stymied, haggard and unglamorous at times. The turn-on with Tennison is the tenacious, sparkling intelligence. Her mind works a little faster 00 and a little more finely than those of the blokes around her who also carry badges.

She still underwhelms most of her thickheaded male subordinates tonight. Her orders to them are at first questioned and then sometimes flat-out ignored. She's still surrounded above andbelow at police headquarters by hostile forces.

She's also facing a hostile community in "Prime Suspect 2." The body of the victim is found in an Afro-Caribbean suburb of London where the police are regarded with suspicion, fear and some loathing.

The specifics go like this: A body is found under a patio, and it resembles that of a black girl who disappeared several years before in awidely publicized case. The girl was never found.

The girl's family was back in the news when her brother was convicted of murder. The brother, though, is now recanting his confession, saying he was coerced into it by police -- officers from the very police division out of which Tennison now operates.

When some of Tennison's more heavy-handed investigators on the girl's case lose their cool while making routine inquiries in the neighborhood, she nearly has a riot on her hands.

Tennison's prime suspect is a white man who resents renting from blacks. He was the one who laid the patio under which the girl's body is found. He is old and not very well, living now in a tiny high-rise cell of a room surrounded, he says, by drug dealers and pimps.

That kind of mistrust and anger between white and black, men and women, police and civilians plays in almost every scene tonight. Even one of Tennison's own detectives tells her he doesn't see what difference one fewer black girl out on the

street will make.

Making matters even more racially complicated for Tennison is the relationship she's having with a black detective, who is ultimately brought in by Tennison's boss to work on the case under her command.

Add one last stress-maker -- the fact that Tennison's ever-so-political boss is up for a promotion and is depending on her to solve the case quickly and without incident or embarrassment -- and you have a woman walking a greased tightwire of office politics, gender conflict and race relations.

That's part of what makes the decision by PBS to censor Tennison's language in "Prime Suspect 2" so irritatingly stupid. This is one tough lady under one tough load of stress, and PBS has her saying things like, "baloney" and "oh, shoot," when anybody who saw last year's uncensored version knows she talks just a wee bit more like a real human being.

What happened between "Prime Suspect" and tonight's sequel is that WGBH, the Boston PBS station, became a co-producer with Granada TV in Great Britain.

Last year, WGBH and PBS only bought the rights to air "Prime Suspect" from Granada and then aired what Granada gave them. This year, as co-producer, they demanded and got the right to make Tennison go into the studio and record words, like "baloney" and "bull," over the stronger words used in the English version.

Mirren often moves her hand to her mouth to try and cover it when her Tennison character uses a word she knows will be edited out in favor of a softer one in the American version. Sometimes, though, you can see her lips saying one thing, while you hear another.

This is one of the ways a timid and confused PBS has reacted to recent attacks from conservatives who charge public television with being too liberal and permissive.

The censorship is troublesome, but don't let it spoil "Prime Suspect 2" for you. After all, it's nothing more than the kind of weak-kneed, whichever-way-the-wind-blows, institutional politicking that Jane Tennison overcomes on a routine basis before she gets down to the real work of solving murders.

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