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PBS Debuts a Prequel Worthy of the Original – ‘Prime Suspect: Tennison’
June 25, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Stefanie Martini (top) makes stepping into Helen Mirren’s shoes almost look effortless in the new prequel to the classic Prime Suspect series.

Mirren starred for years in the original public broadcasting series Prime Suspect as Jane Tennison, a British detective who had to battle both criminals and sexism from her colleagues and superiors.

In Prime Suspect: Tennison, which debuts Sunday at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings), Martini plays Tennison as she is first joining the force in 1973.

Women, even probationary officers, were seen as emotionally, psychologically and physically incapable of performing the demanding police work traditionally executed by men.

Tennison endures this by ignoring it where possible and otherwise brushing it aside. Or seeming to brush it aside.

Martini shows us, in nicely subtle ways, that Tennison, in reality, absorbs enough, so we understand how her struggle will become increasingly difficult as her determination increases in the years ahead.  

The toll of that struggle became amply clear with Mirren’s Tennison, who had terrible problems with relationships and turned too often to alcohol as a palliative.

Martini’s Tennison, however, has a youthful spirit of idealism. She joined the force, she says, because she liked the idea that there’s a “we” who can catch bad guys and keep them from doing further bad things.

The only hitch: From the beginning, her male colleagues see her as a lesser contributor to that “we.”

When a prostitute is murdered, she falls into the case, assigned to trail along with Detective Len Bradfield (Sam Reid). Bradfield isn’t a bad guy, and he seems to accept that women can become good cops. Even he, however, is a few steps from thinking they can be as good as the men.

This series ran six episodes in the U.K. and has been combined into three 90-minute parts for the U.S. It’s designed as a closed-end story, and in this case, the end will apparently be closed permanently.

Prime Suspect: Tennison was not renewed for a second season, thanks in significant measure to a dispute between its producers at ITV and creator Lynda La Plante over the show’s direction.

Whether anyone is right or wrong in that standoff, the investigation into the prostitute’s murder unfolds in many ways as the weakest part of the show.

The basic approach to the case is straightforward and quite watchable. A body is discovered, and the system springs into action. It eventually becomes rather routine, though, with few characters save Tennison who offer fresh dimension.

In some ways, this makes Tennison’s own path more interesting, since Martini has to make us understand why the obstacles she faces should in fact not be part of any routine.

She’s a kind of idealistic everywoman, eager to do well in her new job yet also rooted in a traditional upbringing.

She’s engaged to be married, which her own parents clearly feel should be much more of a priority than this troubling new position seems to allow. So she faces pushback at home as well as in the office.

Unlike many other shows dealing with the subject of discrimination against women, Prime Suspect: Tennison doesn’t peg its story to one single egregious traumatic moment.

Rather, it relies on the accumulation of small slights, many barely intentional, to stack up the odds against which Jane Tennison fights.

Martini puts this into sharp focus, creating a strong foundation for a character we already had come to know.

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