The PBS/BBC police procedural series Prime Suspect premiered in 1991 and began the still-current run of dreary, depressing TV cop shows on both sides of the pond. All of the now-familiar elements were there: sliimy urban streets; an obsession with the seamy side of life; strange and disturbed criminals; a depressed lead detective with an unhappy or nonexistent home life; heavy-handed ironies; a central character’s struggle with addiction or some other nagging personal problem; a police team that fights its bosses and one another almost as much as it fights crooks; an unfair, inefficient, and corrupt police force; and on and drearily on
To be sure, Helen Mirren did a great job of making Det. Supt. Jane Tennison seem real, if not particularly interesting. And like Mirren’s characterization, the show’s allegedly greater realism than the average run of TV cop shows was actually more of a superficial thing. Yes, it is true that Mirren’s choice not to smile and decision to keep her hair short do reflect some concerns of real-life policewomen—they are reluctant to smile while on duty, she has observed, because it can too easily be perceived as weakness, and they keep their hair short or restrain it close to the head so that arrestees can’t grab it. However, these things are superficial elements, and though the show got those right, it made both life in general and the police force in particular appear relentlessly disappointing and much uglier and sad than either really is.
Tonight is the final episode of the long-running intermittent series, on the PBS program Masterpiece Theater, and I, for one, will be glad to see it go—and I hope that it will take most of its numerous imitators along with it. It would be good to see more TV cop and detective shows show a somewhat better perspective on life and present characters whom we can like and sympathize with a bit more readily. Yes, there is room in life for shows like Prime Suspect, but life is a good deal more complex than the "realism" of Prime Suspect and its imitators see fit to acknowledge.
So let’s give Prime Suspect it due recognition—and move on and have a few shows reminiscent of 77 Sunset Strip. Now that would be fun.