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British dramas, particularly those involving cops, have a long history of being embraced by American critics and viewers — sometimes because they’re brilliant, other times because they’re just different (and always seemingly well-written and superbly acted). No matter where the crime scene is set — London or some distant small town — there’s usually a sea of open arms when the finished product arrives here.
It would be easy for BBC America’s Prey to get the same treatment. Presented as two three-part stories created and written by newcomer Chris Lunt and executive produced by Nicola Shindler (Happy Valley, Last Tango in Halifax), Prey has fantastic, engaging actors, consistent directors (Nick Murphy of The Awakening and Occupation handling the first three episodes and Lewis Arnold of Misfits and Humans handling the last three) and checks off a lot of boxes.
Air date: Feb 25, 2016
But ultimately the writing isn’t quite there, hurriedly attempting to cram relatively big ideas into each three-episode arc, and in the process revealing the story’s flaws.
Luckily, Prey has Rosie Cavaliero (A Young Doctor’s Notebook, Little Dorrit) as the centerpiece in each story. Lunt and Shindler seem to be trying to create something along the lines of Prime Suspect, focusing on the mid-career rise of DS Susan Reinhardt (Cavaliero) as she struggles to get a handle on two difficult cases and perhaps setting up the trajectory of the next Jane Tennison (brought to gloriously complicated life by Helen Mirren).
That might be an unfair comparison, because Mirren is legendary and Prime Suspect is the zenith of British cop shows, but you certainly get a whiff of that intent in Prey. If Cavaliero is ready for the rise — and she’s an excellent actress, taking charge of a character still coming into focus — the writing will need to get in shape to support her. It’s not there yet.
What’s not lacking is the acting, as Prey taps two superb performers to anchor both stories: John Simm (Life on Mars, State of Play, The Village) as a detective accused of killing his wife and one of his two sons, and Philip Glenister (Mad Dogs, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes) as a by-the-book prison officer who inexplicably helps a prisoner escape.
Bolstered by a stacked roster of very capable British actors, Simm, Glenister and Cavaliero go a long way toward helping you not worry about wasting your time. Whatever pitfalls might pop up in the writing, the performances are racing forward full-steam.
Prey kicks off with the Simm storyline and it’s one that moves at lightning speed, engaging you thoroughly and then disappointing you when it resolves and you realize it was built on intrigue it can’t properly support. We meet Simm as DC Marcus Farrow investigating a dead body that conveniently calls to mind an old case (so old the files are on floppy disks). Within a few scenes, Farrow is interviewing a suspect who vaguely threatens his family; soon after that, his wife and son are dead, and Farrow is the prime suspect.
Tracking him down is acting Senior Investigating Officer Reinhardt, whose personal life is a shambles because she can’t get over her failed marriage (her former husband is remarried and has a newborn). She just pours more hours into the job and, as BBC America has put it, “finds comfort by eating her feelings.”
You might remember that Jane Tennison was a wreck in the relationship department and worked insanely long hours while battling a serious drinking problem. Like Tennison before her, Reinhardt struggles in the male-dominated police force, with co-workers believing she’s in over her head in the first case and struggling to prove her worth in the second after getting passed over for promotion.
It would be wonderful to follow Cavaliero as DS Reinhardt, making her way in this world, not only because it echoes a superb actress and excellent series that came before, but also because the subtle stylings of Cavaliero — perfectly playing a detective who is capable but not yet proven and trusted — make for an interesting character study. But Prey would have to shore up some of the story planks going forward.
You can sense the trouble in the first story, premiering Thursday night. The frantic, framed-detective-on-the-run narrative is entirely propelled by Simm, an actor who has been so great in so many roles, commanding the screen at all turns. But here he is asked to do a few things that don’t quite work, starting with delivering a very delayed reaction to the news that one of his sons also died on the night he discovered his wife, stabbed and dying in the kitchen. (Overwhelmed, he runs outside and crumples into some muddy water, and that’s pretty much where Prey leaves him.)
It all happens a bit too quickly, as does the second story, in which prison officer Dave Murdoch goes from stable to unstable as he tries to protect his daughter (the common thread of both stories is the Reinhardt character trying to figure out why two good men implode, seemingly on purpose).
As with Simm, you can have Glenister do pretty much anything — character motivation be damned — and the hour will fly by. Those actors combine with Cavaliero to cover up the dubious structure of each three-episode story. They are all so good at elevating the material that you want to like Prey, even when you realize it’s running on overly familiar ground, just with slightly different accents.
Cast: Rosie Cavaliero, John Simm, Philip Glenister
Created and written by: Chris Lunt
Airdate: Thursdays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (BBC America)
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