The cancellation of the NBC show Prime Suspect is a puzzle worth working on.
There are three good reasons why the show should have succeeded.
1) It was really good television, with writing, acting and work so good that Pam and I just looked at one another after one episode, and said, “Wow.”
2) It had a British precedent, starring Helen Mirren no less. This served as a kind of trans-Atlantic proof of concept. These British shows are not always reliable but they help suggest that a show can work…because it has worked.
3) It had an American precedent. The cable show The Closer worked roughly the same territory (female officer endures hostility of male colleagues before solidarity is established) and it won a large and devoted audience.
So why did Prime Suspect not flourish. Who or what killed it?
There is some suspicion that the problem has to do with our sexism, and more specifically our reluctance to embrace the lead character (as played by Maria Bello).
One internet observer said that the entire show was killed by Bello’s choice of headgear. In his opinion, the thing that killed Prime Suspect was the hat.
But I think we have moved beyond this. Hats may be “unfeminine.” They be “unflattering.” But they are not a deal breaker. Viewers, and critics, are larger, less sexist, than this.
In a nice essay, Melissa Silverstein suggests another reason. She wonders whether American viewers are not yet ready for “a female character that is not 100% likeable. No matter how far we have come on TV with female characters we still are not there with having women who are not likeable.”
This could be right. Refusing to be entirely likeable is an act of self authorship. The sexist model says that women should conform to social expectation whatever that expectation is. To refuse this is to exercise a self determination some viewers might find threatening.
But there’s another possibility, and that’s that Prime Suspect didn’t work because the Bello’s character didn’t care what we thought of her. Detective Jane Timoney gives off what I now think of a very New York quality: as if to say, I am who I am and if you don’t like it, too bad. This is sometimes offered belligerently by New Yorkers, but more often it comes across as the sober understanding that not everyone is going to like you, and while you wish that were otherwise, hey. (“Hey” is the New Yorkers all-purpose word, and here it means, roughly, there are things in the world I can change, and things in the world I can’t, and this is just one of the things I can’t change. It’s a kind of resignation.) This is unexceptional claim when made by a male New Yorker. In a sexist culture, it is something else when made by a woman.
To be sure, this is a little like the likeable problem but it’s a more radical proposition. Not being entirely likable means that I harbor a quality or two you don’t like. Not caring what you think means that I don’t care if none of my qualities appeal to you. This self position is, for the purposes of this show, radically feminist to the extent that it says “social expectations and the sexist model are a matter of indifference to me. I’ve moved on.”
This is even more radical than the image of femaleness we are going to get in the forthcoming movie, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. This woman presents herself in a post-sexist language (tattoos and studs and haircuts) but she is engaging sexism by resisting it. The Bello/Timoney performance cuts itself away from the old regime. It leaves the debate. And this is a more radical gesture, a more damning, refusal that any tattoo or stud. And this is to say that Bello/Timoney took up just about the most radical feminist one can take. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Americans were taken aback. All of us are post-sexist to some degree. Only a some of us are post-sexist to this degree.
We have a series of experiments at work in our culture, as our best actresses take on roles and use them as laboratories of a kind. ”Can I be like this?” the actress asks. “Can/should/will women be like this?” everyone wonders. And Prime Suspect gives us an answer. Eventually our culture will catch up to Bello/Timoney. At the moment she is ahead of the curve.