'Prime 5' rates with the best TV cop dramas Preview: Poor Jane Tennison has been exiled to Manchester. Pity the crooks there.

February 08, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Poor Jane, all alone in life and now she's demoted to Manchester -- with its great, gray slabs of failed housing projects and all those grimy, crumbling, silent factories -- and a job that mainly involves talking to schoolchildren who couldn't care less about what she has to say.

That's the way "Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgement" opens tomorrow night on PBS, but it's never poor Jane Tennison for very long, is it? If this were a musical, Helen Mirren's big number would be "Don't Cry for Me, Masterpiece Theatre."

Before long, Tennison has talked her new boss, Detective Chief Superintendent Martin Ballinger (John McArdle), into giving her a murder case, a team of officers and a reason to live. She's back on the street and in the squad room, adrenalin pumping, going nose-to-nose with bad guys on both sides of the badge. She is once again, in her own words, "bloody Jane Tennison."

One very bad guy is Clive Norton (Steven Mackintosh), a k a "The Street," a savage gang leader who really does look like something that climbed out from under a rock. One teen-ager is wounded and another killed by Uzi machine gun fire in one of the housing projects Norton rules, and Tennison is certain that he's involved.

It quickly gets personal for Tennison, as she starts cleaning up what's left of Norton's victims after he, his thugs and his Rottweilers get through with them. There's also the matter of Norton taunting Tennison, like the message he leaves after seeing her on television pleading for information in the slayings: "Jane, back off on the beige. It sort of flattens ya. It makes ya look older. Know what I mean?"

There is another bad guy/gal in "Prime Suspect 5," and he/she is in the Manchester station house. Indicating gender might diminish the viewing experience for some, because both male and female cops are suspected, and trying to solve the mystery of the bad cop within the larger murder case that Tennison's working is one of the great pleasures of this series.

This is not the greatest "Prime Suspect" ever. Its worst sin is in replaying old notes in a way that goes beyond formula. While Norton is an interesting villain capable of pushing your visceral buttons, he is too much an imitation of the pimp (David Thewlis) who ran a ring of teen-age male prostitutes in "Prime Suspect 3: Inner Circles." Mackintosh is good, but he's no Thewlis, and his best moments only remind you what a mesmerizing tango Thewlis and Mirren danced in that film.

But, that said, "Prime Suspect 5" is still as fine a dramatic ride as the best American cop dramas on their best nights. The attention to detail is as keen as it has ever been, resulting in a film full of perfect little images and moments.

One scene finds Tennison and a key member of her squad, Detective Clare Devanney (Julia Lane), having an intense private conversation in a corridor outside the squad room. They are posed in front of a bulletin board that features a flier headlined "Lone Females." Each is very much alone at that point in the film and showing not a shred of the alleged female predisposition to be supportive.

Another such moment occurs in the housing project where the initial murder took place. The scene opens at breakfast in the apartment of the teen-age girlfriend of a suspect. The first image we see is that of a greasy pork sausage in a crusty skillet.

As the camera pulls back, it shows us the girl's mother, a heroin addict, exhaling cigarette smoke over a platter of eggs and sausage. Not only has the director taken us inside the housing project, he has given us the chance to smell and taste it, too.

That's the world Tennison has to enter, understand and then simultaneously come to care about and conquer in "Prime Suspect 5," only to wind up at the end standing alone in a cold, gray rain with blood on her hands waiting for the coroner.

Poor bloody Jane.

'Prime Suspect'

What: "Errors of Judgement"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow and Feb. 16

E9 Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67) and WETA (Channel 22)

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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