Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection

Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection (DVD Cover)

Recurring character(s): Detective Chief Inspector, later Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren)

Director: Various

Original air date(s): 1991 through 2006
DVD Date: 09/07/2010

Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: Approximately 25 hours plus bonus material

Note(s): Created by crime novelist Lynda La Plante, who also wrote the first and third episodes.

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Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection

Review: For over a period of 15 years, Helen Mirren starred as Detective Chief Inspector, later Detective Superintendent Jane Tennison, in the crime drama Prime Suspect. Individual seasons (series) have previously been available on DVD, but now the entire series has been brought together into one collection. If you, like me, are one of the few that hadn't seen any episodes of the series, or haven't yet added any of the series to your collection, this is an opportunity to acquire what may be one of the finest crime dramas ever filmed.

It's hard to believe that less than 20 years ago there were only a handful of women who held the rank of Detective Chief Inspector within the Metropolitan Police Department of London. The opening episode of this series is all about one of them, Jane Tennison, earning the respect of her staff -- respect that would have been given without a second thought to a male DCI -- by hard work and good police skills in the case of a serial killer. The serial killer storyline itself isn't all that interesting -- maybe it was in 1991 but it has been done to the point of monotony since then -- yet it does serve to provide a strong foundation for the characters to develop over the course of nearly three and a half hours of air time. The performances are flawless, the direction crisp. This episode won four BAFTAs, including one for Best Drama and one for Helen Mirren. Series creator Lynda La Plante, who also wrote this episode, picked up an Edgar Award for best television feature.

Fortunately, the topic of sexism in the workplace is largely set aside for the remaining episodes in the series. The second episode takes up racism instead. The cast here is, for all practical purposes, unchanged from the first, with the notable inclusion of a token black officer assigned to Tennison's team when the body of a young girl -- race initially unknown, but thought to be a missing black teenager in an unsolved case from several years back -- is found buried beneath a paved-over garden. Again, the performances are terrific, but there isn't much for the actors to work with here. The storyline is incredibly weak, far too insubstantial to fill out another 200 plus minutes of air time. And the subplot of the relationship between Tennison and the black officer, undoubtedly intended to add conflict and tension, is simply contrived and rather silly. Had this episode been tightened considerably, this would have been a much more compelling one. Even so, Helen Mirren picked up her second BAFTA award, the series its first Emmy (for Outstanding Miniseries), and its second Edgar. (When it was originally released on DVD, this episode was subtitled "Operation Nadine".)

Lynda La Plante returns to write the third episode: dark, disturbing, intricately crafted and riveting. Tennison has requested a transfer and is assigned to head up a vice unit. The cast is largely new, though there are a couple of holdovers. The plot primarily involves the investigation of the death of a rent boy, but it is the behind-the-scenes activity at the police station that captures Tennison's -- and our -- attention. There are a lot of unknowns here and that keeps us watching, wondering how it will all play out. It's still a bit overlong -- another three and a half hour episode -- but it moves along fairly briskly. Helen Mirren received her third consecutive BAFTA for Best Actress and the episode received its second BAFTA for Best Drama and second Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries. (When it was originally released on DVD, this episode was subtitled "The Keeper of Souls".)

It seems the producers decided to experiment with the fourth series, creating three 100 minute episodes instead of one long one, as was the case for the previous three series. I think it was a brilliant decision, as the stories are just as compelling and, because of the shorter time period, more tautly written and directed. Tennison has been promoted to Detective Superintendent and her first case ("The Lost Child") involves the kidnapping of a young girl. In her second case ("Inner Circles"), when a local DCI doesn't respond to a page after a man is found murdered, Tennison is put in charge, disrupting the fragile balance of politics that hold a community together. Finally, in the third case ("The Scent of Darkness") and assigned to a team hostile to her, who believe she can't be objective when a serial killer strikes, one using techniques remarkably similar to someone Tennison put away years ago, she risks her job by pursuing an separate -- and unapproved -- investigation. Helen Mirren won her first Lead Actress Emmy for her role in "The Scent of Darkness".

The fifth series reverts back to a single storyline over 200 minutes. Nearly fired for insubordination for her actions in "The Scent of Darkness", Tennison is assigned to a division in Manchester. Out of her element, but not out of her league, she takes on the murder of a drug dealer, a case that, if not solved quickly, is sure to lead to gang warfare and many more deaths. Subtitled "Errors of Judgement", it's a powerfully filmed episode, but not a strongly plotted one, and one clearly not suited to this longer format, with a number of scenes that seem to simply exist solely to fill time. Still, Emmy voters thought enough of it to give the series its third Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries.

Fear of being typecast, Helen Mirren reportedly left the series after the fifth season, and seven years pass before another episode (season) would air. Subtitled "The Last Witness" and chronologically set seven years after the last episode, Tennison is back in London, now having served 30 years on the police force. She is being urged to retire and, in her own words, has stolen a murder investigation from a subordinate to prove her continued worth to the department. A Bosnian woman, with physical marks of torture, is found murdered. A Serbian man is suspected of the crime, though there is no motive or evidence against him. In contrast to some of the long-form episodes, there is enough material to fill the time here -- Tennison's trip to Bosnia helps considerably in this regard -- but it is surprisingly thinly plotted with little suspense. Helen Mirren, however, is superb in her performance having gained during her absence, if this is possible, even more authority with her character than displayed in previous episodes. This is the only episode of the series that did not win any major awards.

The series comes to a close with the "The Final Act". Once again, Helen Mirren's performance overshadows a weakly plotted story that stretches credulity from the opening scenes: with a Detective Superintendent overseeing dozens of murder investigations (the number given in the previous episode), why would she be drawn so early and so deeply into the case of a missing person? That it will turn into a murder investigation is predictable, as is the culprit, whose identity comes as no surprise. It's rather disappointing that Tennison takes so long to put it all together; in previous episodes, her instinct or intuition told her who was guilty, and it was simply a matter of proving it. Here, she ignores the obvious, doesn't follow her own direction, and seems lost from the very beginning. We're apparently supposed to chalk that up to her alcoholism, but that's only serves to emphasize how poorly developed this particular storyline is. Though everyone knew the series was coming to a close, the only BAFTA award this episode won was for music; Emmy voters were more charitable, awarding Helen Mirren her second Lead Actress award (probably deserved), and handing out (probably less deserved) Emmys for Best Direction and Best Writing.

Many, maybe most, of the episodes end rather ambiguously. Viewers who like -- or demand -- closure at the end of a story will likely be frustrated here, but I think the lack of a definitive ending adds depth and overall interest; not every story has a clean and easy conclusion.

Prime Suspect is crime drama at its very best. Helen Mirren deserves most of the credit for making this series one of the most compelling ever filmed for television, but a first-rate supporting cast and high production values as well as generally solid scripts help hold viewers interest throughout its 15 year run.


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