God save the queen's TV drama producers

With `State of Play,' `Prime Suspect,' at least there's something to watch


April 18, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Thank goodness for British television drama.

Though American networks have all but switched from making new (costly) dramas to pumping out (cheaper) reality TV shows, the British are sticking to what they've done well for decades. After a week of Trump-mania - and the finale of NBC's The Apprentice - tonight's premiere of two soul-stirring, brain-engaging, multipart dramas from the other side of the Atlantic could not be more welcome.

It has been seven years since Helen Mirren's landmark character, Inspector Jane Tennison of Prime Suspect fame, first solved a case for the London Metropolitan Police. Mirren gave up the role after Prime Suspect 5, but she's back on PBS tonight in Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness, and neither Tennison nor the story has ever been better.

Meanwhile, BBC America also is launching State of Play, a taut political thriller about a popular member of Parliament whose life begins unraveling after a young research assistant falls to her death in the London Underground. Written by Paul Abbott (Cracker and Touching Evil), the drama plays as fast and fascinating as a John le Carre novel - except the sex is better.

Superior drama

Outside of the remarkable work being done on HBO, the last bastion of American television drama, the Brits have always done better with the genre than their American network counterparts.

One reason is that British actors generally see no distinction between working in feature films and television. That means Mirren can go from the big screen (Gosford Park) to TV (Prime Suspect) in a way that Meryl Streep never would be able to do without everyone in Hollywood saying she was on the skids.

There are also cultural reasons for the superiority of British TV drama to anything this side of HBO's The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or The Wire. British TV drama, by and large, is willing to engage the full social reality of British life - no matter how unsettling that may be for viewers.

As David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, recently said: "The function of an hour drama is to reassure the American people that it's OK to go out and buy stuff. It's all about flattering the audience, making them feel as if all authority figures have their best interests at heart. ... We're going to tell you that everything's OK, and you should go out and buy stuff."

Showing class conflict

A result of that Madison Avenue imperative - and network television is the creation of Madison Avenue - is programming that rarely mentions social class. Beyond a rare drama such as NBC's late Homicide: Life on the Street, which consciously emulated the Brits in this regard, American television doesn't depict class conflict.

The same can be said of gender, ethnic and racial differences. While some of the more enlightened sitcoms, like NBC's Will & Grace, might joke about gender differences, American television rarely portrays how women's lives can be limited by sexism - or the price exacted from those who confront it.

That's what made the original Prime Suspect jump off the screen when it made its debut in 1992: the bare-knuckled gender warfare that unfolded at the precinct house as Detective Chief Inspector Tennison took over when a male colleague died of a heart attack. The dead detective was beloved in all-male squad room now being led by an unapologetic misogynist (played by Tom Bell).

But Tennison was no sainted feminist either. Moody, caustic and self-absorbed, she could be kind to one male subordinate and unfair to another. She drank, smoked and went to bed with someone if he happened to catch her eye. She made as many foolish choices as wise ones, but her single-minded professionalism and refusal to buckle to intimidation on or off the job was admirable.

Written by Lynda La Plante, the series re-invented the police procedural and won every award imaginable. But unlike Hollywood, which takes a winning formula and replays it ad nauseum in sequels, Prime Suspect allowed the character to grow as the story lines explored other social issues in a nation trying to come to terms with an exploding multiculturalism. Prime Suspect 2 dealt with racism as Tennison investigated a murder in an Afro-Caribbean community while she battled resistance to her command from a young black detective.

Gender and age issues

In Prime Suspect 6, the investigation begins with the discovery of a disfigured body of a young Bosnian woman. Tennison's investigation not only takes her into the heart of London's Bosnian refugee community, but back into the Balkans themselves and a 10-year-old war crime.

She's now 54 and undergoing a physical examination for her annual review as the film opens. As detective superintendent for the last seven years, she is the highest-ranking woman in the department. She lies through her teeth to the doctor about smoking and drinking, and then heads into the interview portion of the review process for a chat with her bosses and a bureaucratic twit from the personnel office.

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