Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Policewoman Heats Up TV

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Policewoman Heats Up TV

Article excerpt

TOUGH television - that describes the three-part "MYSTERY!" series, "Prime Suspect" that begins tonight on PBS.

Raw energy and a hard-nosed, coarse realism distinguishes this British police drama from fast-paced, slick action-adventures. It can be painful to watch, dealing as it does with serial murder, and some viewers may take offense at the strong language and some of the explicit medical and police procedures the story includes.

Still, there is something interesting going on here - a denial of titillating sensationalism despite a sensational subject, and more interesting yet, a layered characterization of a woman detective as she struggles not only with the murder investigation, but with her colleagues' prejudices.

The real drama at work here concerns a woman, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, who is smart, ruthless, and tenacious enough to scale the "power tower" of a male-dominated profession.

The filmmakers have gone to some trouble to show us what it takes to survive in so harsh an environment without turning their heroine into a female version of Dirty Harry.

When Tennison (Helen Mirren) cries in frustration and instantly regains control of herself, we read that as strength. But seeing a woman take on the responsibilities usually assigned to men in the movies (one recent exception being Jody Foster's portrayal of an FBI trainee assigned to a serial murder case in "Silence of the Lambs") gives one pause.

In fact, police work can be harsh, demanding, and unforgiving, and Tennison wades through the muck with the best of them.

Writer Lynda La Plante even slyly implies that sometimes a policewoman has an advantage in certain investigations.

As the story opens, a woman has been found murdered. The police locate a suspect almost at once, but the chief inspector in charge of the case dies suddenly, so Tennison marches into the superintendent's office and demands the case.

Much resented among her male colleagues, she meets with outright sabotage of her best efforts - especially orchestrated by her sergeant, whose petty machinations almost manage to oust Tennison from the case. But her single-minded drive unravels the facts around a series of sexual murders and links them to one killer.

Tennison is no super woman and no role model, either. You don't have to like her or want to emulate her to realize she has something valuable to contribute. You respect her and want her to succeed, but she is egotistical and self-centered.

She can be petty and scrappy with fellow officers, too. She dodges the superintendent - who wants to dismiss her - by hiding in the women's room until he leaves the office.

In Tennison's reasoning, the end justifies the means, because this maneuver buys her time to find more evidence to prove her case.

Then, too, you have to like her style as she handles her detractors first with an iron fist, and then with teasing good humor. …

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