“No.” I tell him. Then, “… but ‘Prime Suspect’ is the spiritual antecedent.”
In this case, I was speaking about “The Fall”, which I enjoyed perfectly well. But I should have guessed it was only a matter of time before someone put forth a prequel based on “Prime Suspect” star player Jane Tennison, the detective so brilliantly portrayed by Helen Mirren for seven glorious seasons. Police procedurals are ardently loved by audiences after all, and now it seems the beloved British sleuths of yesteryore are providing us, one at a time, with lucrative opportunities for a revisit (“Endeavor”, our young “Morse”, is plugging away in its fifth season). We’ll soon be seeing a youthful Poirot, Foyle, and Barnaby soon – mark my words!
“Prime Suspect” was so good – so good! peerless! – it took me a long time for me to gear up to watch “Tennison”. The series emerged two years after “Suspect” creator Lynda La Plante’s novel detailing the DCI’s beginnings, and benefits from La Plante’s creative control. La Plante cherry-picked relative unknown Stefanie Martini for the eponymous role. No one can approach Mirren of course, but I am also an amiable sort when it comes to these reboot/prequel thingies and was determined to give Martini a shot.
Proceedings open in 1973 on – what else? – the body of a teenage girl, strangled and left out in the alleyway’s rainfall. Interspersed with the Met’s discovery of the body, we meet the shady Bentley family. Head of household Clifford (Alun Armstrong) stands to matriculate back into society from a long lockup whereupon he will reunite with long-suffering wife Renee (Ruth Sheen) and his horrible, criminally-minded sons (Lex Shrapnel and Jay Taylor). It is revealed Cliff has no plans to go straight, and he and his sons are putting together a plot to rob a bank. The sons are also shown to be tacitly involved with the dead young woman.
After the discovery of the body, Jane Tennison, probationary officer and one of only two women in the nick, is brought along to help serve next-of-kin notice. Young Tennison is intelligent, capable, determined, and very observant. She is inexperienced but not shy about trying to learn more as quickly as she can; her DI Len Bradfield (Sam Reid), either spying raw talent or experiencing pants-feelings, takes the young officer under his wing for tutelage. Thus Jane is brought into the case more than she otherwise might be (which we need for the plot to develop suitably). More intra-character intricacies emerge, in the vein of the original “Prime Suspect” series.
In developing Tennison’s character we already know she’s a toff; she therefore has to both downplay down her background to succeed on the street and contend with her parent’s disapproval at her career choice (Nick Sidi and Geraldine Somerville). So far so good. As the mystery unfolds the other officers (Jessica Gunning, Andrew Brooke, Blake Harrison) mostly play nice with young Jane. We are given many vignettes on the sexism, racism, and police brutality of the era; these bits of story are impeccably rendered onscreen without overreaching, as we might expect from the series’ lineage.
The mystery isn’t quite as well-written as “Prime Suspect”‘s mysteries were; for instance, inasmuch as the identity of the murdered teen’s killer is supposedly Jane’s motivation, there isn’t a single final scene where the grieving parents are given closure. Other moments fall flat: young Jane is a teetotaler and unable to hold a cigarette properly; she is pressganged into both vices by the other members of the squad (the older Jane will develop a cigarette addiction and full-blown alcoholic dependency). These drinking-and-smoking developments might have been better suited to a long game approach; as it is they feel rushed and artificial.
But it is the character and plot device of DI Bradfield that falls most flat. He and Tennison develop an ill-advised affair; worse still Bradfield develops a laser focus on the elder Bentley, to the detriment of his caseload. As Tennision and Bradfield flirt and then exchange a few kisses the relationship is placed on a certain footing: a doomed one. Young Tennison seems rather sweet and entirely loyal to her new feelings, whereas the matured Tennison will prove to be an unprincipled lech, fickle and undisciplined in relationships and uncaring with regards to marriages. Bradfield’s exit from the series as well as a final act reveal seem dramatic and cheap. I am also not buying that no one in the station would have alerted Tennison to relevant facts about Bradfield’s personal life.
Despite quibbles there is so much to like, here. The cinematography, sets, fashion, and the ethos of the era are very well done (inasmuch as I can vouch for authenticity; I was born in ’77). And in a notable difference between this new show and its associated venture is the music: no expense was spared in delivering us wonderful seventies tunes, which I very much appreciated.
“Tennison” accomplishes something I wouldn’t have predicted: it will work for audiences entirely unfamiliar with or uninterested in the original “Suspect” series. But for those of us ready to settle into several seasons, the effort feels both rushed and cramped. Complicating the future of this endeavor, La Plante and ITV had a falling out and “Tennison” was not renewed for another season. If by some luck this character gets another reboot I’m still up for another try. Flaws and all, I will follow Jane Tennison anywhere.