Who killed Prime Suspect?

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.   

9 thoughts on “Who killed Prime Suspect?”

  1. Hi Grant–great piece. Prime Suspect is the only new show I watched this season. Maria Bello is (was?) a revelation and I am so sad to see it go. I think the network killed it, period. They didn’t give it enough time. Used to be that a show could evolve into a hit. No longer. Like mainstream movies, unless a release has a strong opening box office, it is considered a disappointment. Care to start a letter-writing campaign?

    1. Debbie, yes, if only NBC had exercised a little more patience. How long did it take people for people to “get” and embrace Kyra Sedgwick in The Closer. It doesn’t happen straight away. Especially when the character is deliberately at odds with mainstream expectation. Thanks! Grant

  2. Grant, you might be interested in Alan Sepinwall’s take (http://www.hitfix.com/blogs/whats-alan-watching/posts/requiem-for-a-dead-cop-show-why-ill-miss-prime-suspect) – if you don’t read Sepinwall, he’s a TV critic that I really enjoy for his insight into TV and culture (I also enjoy his podcast). His analysis is that while the show was starting to find its voice, it didn’t show enough early traction for NBC in the ratings to give it time to sort itself out.

    Re: the question of an unlikeable female protagonist, it seems like Claire Danes on Showtime’s Homeland would fill that bill. I only watched the pilot (but will watch the first season once it’s available in a legal online format), but she definitely did not fit the mold of a traditional female protagonist. Then again, a show on Showtime does not need to have a broad audience to be successful, the way a network drama does, so it can afford to be polarizing (according to zap2it, Homeland’s finale drew 1.7M viewers, which was great for Showtime, whereas Prime Suspect is drawing 4M viewers, which is an utter failure for NBC).

    1. Eric, yes, great comparison. For me Danes is free to let fly. Free is perhaps the wrong word. Forced to let fly. Even as a member of an intelligence service that takes for granted that you ought to keep emotions battened down…and not just because it was founded by WASPs. Whereas Bello give us the New Yorker’s modulation of emotion. (See my reply to Clare, above.) So they are creatures caught in different contexts. And yes, this is the difference between cable and network which goes back to something we have talked about, whether and how you could make TV like baseball. So that a show like Prime Suspect could start on cable, develop an audience with the risks are low, and demonstrate whether and when it’s ready for prime time. Thanks! Forgive the delay in replying please!

    1. Virginia, forgive the delayed reply. Yes, the competition often does decide. And I don’t know the answer. Still this was so good, it should have overwhelmed all competitors. Thanks, Grant

  3. Other things aside (time slot, promo dollars spent on it), there was also the question of the character and the development
    or lack thereof of the character.

    Sure, we may not have seen a female cop bump up against male cops
    in such a blatant way, but I have seen this same scenario play out in board rooms, governments, etc. I’ve seen
    this story before. With each episode, I grew more and more tired of the limited writing and limited vision
    of the character to break out of this box.

    The American version was a HUGE let down from the brilliant character that Helen Mirren presented in the original Prime Suspect.
    I found Maria’s version to be lacking in nuance -she presented a one dimensional version of a tough female cop.

    Also, it behooves you to look at In Plain Sight – another tough female character who has lasted five seasons
    on the USA Network.

    I think it has less to with a tough female protagonist and more to do with poor writing.

    1. Clare, thanks for the excellent comment. Yes, there is a feeling that no one can out Mirren Mirren or even equal her. But I loved the American Bello version. But it wasn’t until I moved to the US that I was in a position to “get” her. There is that carefully modulated compassion, that inclination to draw a line, the one that says, this is as far as I go (emotionally, intellectually, socially). New Yorkers are always choosing how far to go, when to draw in, when to keep their heads down and let something play out. Bello portrays this to perfection. It’s the self protection the city demands of you and i would guess that doing police works doubles this demand. It’s like watching a shifting border. Sometimes it’s here, sometimes there. Moving this and show how and when and why you move it, this is the Bello accomplishment. Thanks again.

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