'Prime Suspect 3,' prime again

April 28, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

How good is "Prime Suspect 3," the new Jane Tennison murder mystery?

Good enough that I intended to watch only the first two hours over the weekend, and ended up in a miniseries marathon -- watching non-stop all six hours.

My errands went undone, my weeds went unwhacked.

It's a terrific series, as good as the two previous outings by Helen Mirren as the British cop, Detective Chief Inspector Tennison. As an actress, Mirren is in the league of Glenn Close and Meryl Streep. In her hands, Tennison becomes the most interesting, edgy and realistic female character anywhere on American television.

Once again, she's up against the old boys' network in the police department and one deuce of a crime -- the murder of a boy who, in the language of this series, was "on the game," a teen prostitute.

People above her in the police department and below her in the vice world of Soho all seem to know more about the crime, the dead boy and the major players in male prostitution than Tennison. She is the person sandwiched in the middle, frustrated at almost every turn. Her new boss (remember, she transferred out of the Southhampton Road station at the end of "Prime Suspect 2") is serious about wanting the investigation out of the lime light and Tennison's reach.

Then there are the suspects -- prime and otherwise. They range from aging and frightened female impersonators and cross-dressers to people who make their living off children's bodies, called chickenhawks.

The prime suspect is one James Jackson, a chickenhawk who finds runaways at the train station and puts them on the game. As played by David Thewlis, he is everything you might imagine him to be -- insufferable, slimy, unctuous and acting outraged that anyone would dare accuse him of wrongdoing.

When Tennison questions him near the end of tonight's installment, daggers are drawn, wits are sharpened and minds are made up on both sides of the table. It's a delicious confrontation of two opposites: male against female, vice against virtue, truth against deception.

"Mystery!" host Diana Rigg -- wearing a pin-striped suit that will make you want to adjust your TV's vertical setting -- warns viewers in her introduction that this is a brutal world depicted with considerable detail. That should probably be underscored. "Prime Suspect 3" is as gritty as a news documentary on child prostitution and murder, and the language used to describe the people of this world and the acts some of them commit is graphic.

This is the sort of adult series that has Tennison studying autopsy photographs of the charred remains of a teen-age boy and asking medical questions while the expert answering them is also trying to get her to go to bed with him. It's sex and violence done in a very British, very intellectual way. It ain't "Matlock," baby.

We don't get much of this in American TV -- rich characterizations, villains as interesting as heroes, and dialogue that laces them together. That's another thing, in addition to Mirren's performance, that makes this series worth watching, taping and watching again -- weeds and errands be damned.

"Prime Suspect 3" starts at 9 tonight -- on MPT (channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 26) -- and continues in that weekly time slot for the next three weeks.

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