'Under Suspicion,' unstylishly studied, drags itself along

September 16, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Under Suspicion" is one of the strangest new shows this fall.

It make sense when you understand that it's an attempted knockoff of "Prime Suspect 3," the Emmy Award-winning miniseries from Britain that starred Helen Mirren as a female police detective supervising a squad room full of men.

But CBS appears to have understood almost nothing about what made "Prime Suspect 3" so great, and, as a result, gets it all wrong in "Under Suspicion."

The pilot for the series, which premieres at 9 tonight on WBAL (Channel 11), is told half in flashback, half through the eyes of the female detective, Rose "Phil" Phillips (Karen Sillas). We are never sure what viewpoint is coming next or what we just saw, which makes more for confusion than anything approaching suspense.

CBS is calling "Under Suspicion" a "stylish police mystery drama" and dropping the term film noir all over the place. I suspect a lot of viewers, though, are simply going to think it's slow and weird-looking.

Tonight's hour ends with a "To be continued" tag. Let's hope the case doesn't turn into a search for the one-armed man and last the whole season.

The case involves the disappearance of Phillips' partner, Frank Fusco (Peter Onorati); there's evidence he might have been on the take. (Onorati is not a regular member of the cast, so Fusco is probably gone for good. But in this kind of muddle, who knows?)

Phillips saw Fusco get in a car, then the car blew up. But, later, there is some doubt about what she saw because Fusco pops up again.

So, besides working in a room full of tacky, sexist men, Phillips might be suffering from delusions -- or something. Who knows? Who cares?

The pace is painfully slow compared to PBS' "Prime Suspect." When you're talking slow compared to anything on PBS, you are talking major league slow.

Philip Casnoff, who played the villain in "North and South" and The Man Himself in CBS' Frank Sinatra miniseries, is a supporting player in "Under Suspicion" as Sgt. James Vitelli of Internal Affairs. Vitelli is also investigating the disappearance of Fusco. Part of that probe involves questioning Phillips in what looks to be a storage room where they fight for space among file cabinets.

Like I said, a lot of this show is just plain bizarre.

In scenes with Vitelli and Phillips, every look is studied, every gesture deliberate, every pause made to seem pregnant. It's as if Edward James Olmos' "Miami Vice" character were the model for every performance. This is what CBS calls "stylish," I guess.

All the series really needs is an interesting and appealing lead actress instead of Sillas, and a plot so the story could at least inch along. Outside of that, "Under Suspicion" has it all.

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