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

Sep 18, 2011

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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