'Prime Suspect: Tennison': TV Review

Courtesy of PBS
Stefanie Martini in 'Prime Suspect: Tennison'
Relax and enjoy — it's a prequel, not a remake.

This prequel to the classic Helen Mirren-led original succeeds by playing a long game — the difficult evolution of Jane Tennison.

In an American television landscape that has so many standout cop series, from network fare like Homicide: Life on the Street and NYPD Blue to cable legends like The Shield and The Wire, it's easy to forget that the Brits brought to life one of the most iconic detectives, Jane Tennison, and series, Prime Suspect, in the history of the medium.

In the process, everybody realized Helen Mirren was a treasure, and her performance as the hard-bitten, self-destructive and peerless detective put Prime Suspect into the hall of fame.

It's easy to cast aspersions on the logic behind a prequel, but it's really pretty simple: Lynda La Plante, the writer who created Jane Tennison and Prime Suspect as a TV series in the first place, wrote a best-selling novel, Tennison, precisely about those early days. If the source material is there, why not?

And let's be clear, Prime Suspect: Tennison is a completely different series from its predecessor. Relentlessly comparing it to the original is just a lot of gasbaggery that doesn't add much.

It's also indicative in the pacing of this sequel that Masterpiece (and ITV) hope to have it around for a while. You don't introduce a 22-year-old Jane Tennison and expect, by the end of three 90-minute episodes, to arrive at the beginning of the original TV series. While ITV hasn't announced a second season (the series was called Prime Suspect 1973 in the U.K.), La Plante has already published a follow-up to Tennison, called Hidden Killers, and a third book, Good Friday, is due in September, with a fourth in the works.

That's important to know, since it gives the Tennison character, played here by Stefanie Martini (Doctor Thorne), a chance to be a rookie and get it all wrong and make a lot of mistakes — it was a long and bumpy road in the evolution of Jane Tennison, and, though the earliest episodes of Prime Suspect spoke to that, Tennison goes back farther still.

If Prime Suspect: Tennison falls short in comparison to Prime Suspect, it has a lot to do with the fact that the main character is naive (she still lives with her parents when we meet her), mostly soft, unsure of herself and, when playing in the coarse, male-dominated world of London police circa 1973, makes the ill-advised decision of getting too close to her male supervisor, DI Len Bradfield (Sam Reid).

It's not the late-stage persona that everyone loved — except for her continued poor choices on and off the job. And really, that's the through line of Jane Tennison that both works and made her human, even if it annoys people who want her to be better than she was. The flaws, the humanity, the deeply disastrous choices she makes throughout her life are what define her. They are, in many ways, lingering habits created in those early years, when a woman police officer (and later detective) had it exponentially harder than her male counterparts, even men of color.

That's the Jane Tennison that La Plante has always stuck with and wanted to portray. And in some ways, the character she created evolved to a place La Plante didn't agree with (she famously said she never wanted Jane to be an alcoholic, which became a defining element to the character's later days; the author left the series as that happened, and it could be argued that her books covering the evolution and career of Jane Tennison were her chance to retake control).

That's why it's essential to remember that there's so much more to come and that, to tell a story with authenticity, Prime Suspect: Tennison had to essentially be about the most naive, most lost part of this character. If the three episodes were all that were told, yes, the comparison between the beginning and the end would be distinctly disadvantaged compared to the original. But at least watching this character stumble so often out of the gate seems to be about what would be expected.

Martini was a solid pick. You can see traces of Mirren in her face, but she also has a doe-eyed softness that sets her up rather perfectly for the relentless soul-sucking, jaw-hardening obstacles and burdens that await in this career.

As for the stories inside Prime Suspect: Tennison, they hold up because they are gruesomely complicated (the murder of a 17-year-old girl that hardens Tennison) and ambitious (mob shenanigans in the B storyline that also serve to slowly hone Tennison's deductive skills, which are innately there when we meet her).

As a stand-alone series, this might be a letdown, but as the beginning of a separate journey and an ongoing exploration, it's full of promise.

Cast: Stefanie Martini, Sam Reid, Blake Harrison, Jessica Gunning, Alun Armstrong
Creator: Lynda La Plante

Airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on PBS.