How exactly do you end up with a wonderful television series? Is it cast? Is it writing? Is it the production values in general? Is it a combination of all these things? Or, does it require all of them and, perhaps, just a little bit of magic?
Being released to DVD for the first time ever as a single set, Prime Suspect, is certainly the last of these things. Over the course of the seven different seasons of the show the only constant is Helen Mirren as DCI (at least initially) Jane Tennison, but Mirren and Tennison are certainly enough to build a series around. Additionally, the ever-changing cast of supporting players is also outstanding, including names like Ralph Fiennes, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Salmon, Tom Wilkinson, Ben Miles, Jonny Lee Miller, and Zoë Wanamaker. As with the cast, the behind the scenes crew changed as well, but the series always found a way to talk about important issues of the day, even if the discussions were sometimes a little heavy-handed.
Taking a step back for a second, Prime Suspect aired (although not continuously) from 1991 to 2006 and followed the exploits of Mirren’s Tennison, an outwardly tough-as-nails Detective Chief Inspector. At the outset of the first season, Tennison gets her long overdue shot to investigate a murder and instantly finds herself – as she knew she would – as one of the only women (and the sole one of her rank) in a big boys’ club. She need not only navigate a minefield among her higher-ups, but also the rank and file who would rather she not be ordering them about. It is a tough place for her to be, a place as tough as the serial murders she finds herself investigating. In the pursuit of her career, Tennison gives up a lot in the first season, and gives up plenty more as the show continues in subsequent years of the series.
Many may get the wrong impression by hearing Prime Suspect referred to as a “television series that ran for seven seasons.” That is a perfectly accurate statement, but every season save the fourth one contains one mystery that is investigated over the course of two episodes (each season, again save the fourth, runs for less than four hours each). The anomalous fourth season contains three separate mysteries each of which runs roughly the length of one episode from any other season.
Due to the short nature of the program it may be more accurate to refer to Prime Suspect as a series of mini-series. It is certainly true that when Helen Mirren won Emmys for her portrayal of Tennison in both the fourth and final seasons it was in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special category (she was nominated in the same category for Prime Suspect in every season but the first).
Heading back to our earlier question, perhaps what makes Prime Suspect such a brilliant piece of work is its ability to not only deftly craft interesting mysteries (even when you know who did it), but also its ability to juggle both the mysteries and the personal story of Tennison. In more than one season the audience gets to see not only how the case affects Tennison’s personal life, but how her personal life affects the case. There is a push and pull there that feels not only true to life but also something exceedingly difficult to create without it feeling forced.
At the center of that push and pull, at the center of everything with the series, is Helen Mirren. People often talk about an actor being “made” for a certain part. I am not convinced that such a thing is ever true, but it is nearly impossible to imagine Prime Suspect with anyone but Mirren as Jane Tennison. Watching Mirren and Tennison age and grow and find their footing in a world which ages and grows as well over the course of the 15 years from first season to last is a wonderful experience. Prime Suspect is never afraid to touch on any subject and while Tennison may momentarily falter with some of them, Mirren never does in her portrayal.
Were one to criticize the series, it might be suggested that the series’ need to pick a minority group (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) to explore via a crime loses some of its punch by the third season. It must be said that the case is certainly not less interesting by that point, but even before the opening credits roll on the season one can’t help but wonder which group will take center stage this time out. Additionally, this may only crop up as a problem for viewers watching the seasons in rapid succession.
The nine disc set of Prime Suspect – The Complete Collection comes with a minimal number of bonus features. In fact, only seasons six and seven get any bonus features at all. Season six has a behind-the-scenes featurette while seven contains a photo gallery, cast filmographies, and a longer featurette which discusses the series as a whole. Additionally, the same set of bonus features exist on the previously released individual seasons.
While Prime Suspect is, at its core, a crime drama, it is a crime drama that elevates the genre to high art. Mirren is more than deserving of every accolade she has been given for her work on it, and it is sad to think that there are no more Tennison stories coming our way in the future. If you haven’t seen or don’t own any Prime Suspect, The Complete Collection is definitely worth picking up.