NBC's 'Prime Suspect' Hopes To Fill Some Very Big And Very British Shoes

Sep 19, 2011
Originally published on September 19, 2011 8:50 am

When a British television show is remade for an American audience, it usually hews closely to the original, at least at the uncertain beginning, while it fumbles to find its own identity.

The Office found one. Most don't.

On Thursday night, NBC's gambling with a brand new British adaptation, and the stakes are unusually high. The original Prime Suspect starred Helen Mirren as frosty, frazzled Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, whose travails earned Mirren both a devoted global following and critical adoration that yielded Emmys, Golden Globes and a Peabody. Now Prime Suspect fans are grumbling—why does the world need a remake?

From a network perspective, it makes perfect sense. Prime Suspect ushered in a wave of successful TV shows starring tough, mature women: The Closer. Damages. The Killing. So why not reboot a known franchise, with Maria Bello occupying Helen Mirren's redoubtable shoes?

"When people talk about the shoe thing, I always say, I think we have different size shoes," Bello tells me, a bit resigned to answering a tiresome question for what must be the billionth time. Wearing a button-down blue shirt, sleeves rolled up, and jeans, she perches on a couch in the Prime Suspect office in Universal City, California. (The offices are housed in an airy bungalow first built for Demi Moore's production company.)

A map of New York City is tacked to the wall in the writers' room below, as is a poster from NYPD Blue, the show on which head writer and executive producer Alexandra Cunningham got her start before moving on to other jobs, including Desperate Housewives. The new Prime Suspect is also executive produced by Peter Berg and Sarah Aubrey of Friday Night Lights. Aubrey and Cunningham squeeze on the couch, flanking Bello, for our interview. They've heard the shoe questions a few times before, too. Aubrey jumps in to say that like Mirren, Bello brings a captivating unpredictability to her performances.

"There's a slight naughtiness to her, and an irreverence, so it's not this kind of relentlessly dark, ultra-serious pursuit of justice with a capital J," she tells me.

The producers say it was critical for the revamped Prime Suspect to avoid stereotypical American earnestnes. "Like, 'we speak for the dead,'" Cunningham dramatically intones. "We know. There's been a lot of procedurals. We get it!"

To adapt Prime Suspect for US prime time, Cunningham made all kinds of changes — including the name of the main character. The very British Jane Tennison is now scrappy Irish-American Jane Timoney. (The name was inspired in part by a former New York City police commissioner.)

"Cause, you know, Helen Mirren's always going to be Jane Tennison, which is fine 'cause she deserves to be," Cunningham explains. "But Maria deserves to be her own character, is why I changed her last name."

"And it took me about twenty takes to say my name the first time," Bello interjects drily.

Although Bello originally instructed her agent to forgo any television offers because of the grueling schedule demanded by network dramas, she says she was drawn to this Jane's self-possession and persistence. Bello points to one scene in the first episode when her character is attacked and beaten, graphically, in a dark, dumpster-choked alley before other cops come to her rescue.

"When Jane is laying here and you think she could be dying and [a] cop says, 'Are you all right,' and she just says, 'Do you have a cigarette?' and spits...." Bello bursts into laughter. "I think that's so her. She just keeps plowing through. She gets up on her feet and keeps walking." She pauses. "I like that," she says decisively.

That's what the new Prime Suspect's producers want — for Americans to like Jane Timoney. And to like her decisively enough to refrain from comparing her to the original.

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DAVID GREENE, host: Now over at NBC, that network is taking a big gamble on one of the new shows it's premiering this week. It's an adaptation of the British show "Prime Suspect." American audiences were riveted by the original show with Helen Mirren as an unflinching homicide detective.

Fans have wondered why a remake is even necessary. NPR's Neda Ulaby tracks "Prime Suspect's" move from Scotland Yard to the New York City Police Department.

NEDA ULABY: Grim and unglamorous are probably not the words that spring to mind when you think of Helen Mirren. But as detective chief inspector Jane Tennyson, she was a character defined by hard edges.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PRIME SUSPECT")

HELEN MIRREN: (As Jane Tennyson) So I need a squad car, and a driver and I want access to all items taken from the victim's bedsit, and I want to re-interview the landlady.

ULABY: Other shows about tough older women cops soon followed: "The Closer." "The Killing." And once again, "Prime Suspect," this time with an American swagger and an American star, Maria Bello.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PRIME SUSPECT")

MARIA BELLO: (As Jane Timoney) As of now, our prime suspect is a guy we haven't met, a guy who lives in the neighborhood or works in the neighborhood or both; a guy who was part of the scenery, until suddenly he's not.

ULABY: The new "Prime Suspect," like the old one, features rape, murder and sexism from fellow officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PRIME SUSPECT")

BELLO: (As Jane Timoney) Do you want to explain to me how it is that you have a case and I don't?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well you see Jane, when a bad man does a murder and someone calls the police, you see, the responding officer then will call his sergeant, and then that sergeant will then call a homicide detective.

NEBA ULABY: Jane actually gets undermined more in the older British version. Predictably, the American "Prime Suspect" is much more slick, with fancy helicopter shots, bouncy music, and better looking actors. Maria Bello is gold to Helen Mirren's steel. She struts around in a black fedora. But of course, Maria Bello's real challenge is filling Helen Mirren's shoes.

BELLO: When people talk about the shoe thing, I always say I think we have different size shoes. I think people watched the original "Prime Suspect," fundamentally, because they could not take their eyes off of Helen Mirren playing that part.

ULABY: Sarah Aubrey is the new "Prime Suspect's" executive producer. She says what Maria Bello has in common with Helen Mirren is a kind of unpredictability as an actor.

SARAH AUBREY: There's a slight naughtiness to her, and an irreverence, so it's this not this kind of relentlessly dark, ultra serious pursuit of justice with a capital J.

ULABY: Instead, she's the sort of detective who causally intimidates her boyfriend's controlling ex-wife over dinner.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PRIME SUSPECT")

BELLO: (As Jane Timoney) Never been shot, but I have been stabbed. And I got lye thrown in my face once. And I'm a homicide detective, Trish, not a policeman or a policewoman.

ULABY: It was important to the producer to have a female head writer. Alexandra Cunningham is standing in the "Prime Suspect's" writer's room in Los Angeles.

ALEXANDRA CUNNINGHAM: This is where the magic happens.

ULABY: All the other writers there were guys. Upstairs, Cunningham squeezed on a couch with Maria Bello. They said they had to fight the American impulse to make "Prime Suspect" too earnest.

BELLO: Right, we didn't want to be the typical (humming) duh, duh, duh, duhh.

CUNNINGHAM: Yeah, we speak for the dead.

BELLO: Yeah.

CUNNINGHAM: Like, we know, there's been a lot of procedurals. We get it.

ULABY: To adapt "Prime Suspect" for US primetime, Cunningham made all kinds of changes including the name of the main character. British Jane Tennyson is now Irish-American, Jane Timoney.

CUNNINGHAM: 'Cause, you know, Helen Mirren's always going to be Jane Tennyson, which is fine 'cause she deserves to be. But Maria deserves to be her own character is why I changed the last name.

BELLO: And it took me about 20 takes to say my name the first time.

ULABY: What was less hard, was capturing the self possession and persistence that drew Maria Bello to the role.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "PRIME SUSPECT")

UNIDENTIED MAN: The suspect is headed south on 4th Avenue and 21st. Detective Timoney in pursuit.

ULABY: Bello's very favorite scene in the first episode comes right after a chase down a dark dumpster choked alley. She's attacked and graphically beaten before other cops come to her rescue. Bello says this is when you really see her character's refusal to back down.

BELLO: When Jane is laying there and you think could be dying and the cop says, you know, are you all right, and she just says: do you have a cigarette and spits. I think that's so her. Like, she just keeps on plowing through no matter what happens she gets up on her feet and keeps walking. I like that.

ULABY: That's what writer Alexandra Cunningham wants - for Americans to like Jane Timoney enough to stop comparing her to the original.

CUNNINGHAM: I feel like that is a difference between our show and the original, is that Helen Mirren was never going to get in a beat down with someone.

ULABY: While the show's braced for a beat down from "Prime Suspect's" most loyal fans, they won't be getting one from Helen Mirren. Producers say she's given the new show her blessing.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.