Prime Suspect opens with Detective Jane Timoney (Maria Bello) forcing herself to run laps around a reservoir, determined not to let the fact that she only recently quit smoking hold her back. Moments later, when she’s being ignored by her cabbie, she pulls out her gun and badge, demanding respect, whether it’s earned or not. Her every action is a declaration of her determination to be a leader. She is prone to overreacting, often misjudges her peers, and is driven by her own certitude: When Jane sees the opportunity to take over a high-profile case involving a serial rapist/killer, she grabs it, ambushing her boss (Aidan Quinn) mere hours after the previous lead detective’s unexpected heart attack. Not only is Jane dealing with the childish antics of her male co-workers, led by Reg Duffy (Brian O’Byrne, finally in a meaty role), who distrust her swift rise from vice and therefore keep stealing her cases, but she’s also struggling to adapt to compromises on the home front, child-proofing her home so that her boyfriend’s son can safely spend the night.
Though Prime Suspect doesn’t appear to be pursuing the intense interrogations and single-case sleuthing of the U.K. version on which it’s based, it’s thankfully imported the most important ingredient: a close and personal look at its protagonist’s emotional state. Jane’s a guarded woman, but she lets her mask slip twice, once in front of her father (Peter Gerety), after learning that she’s gotten the case, and again, this time in front of her boyfriend, after a particularly rough evening in which her team turns their back on her. Between those two poles runs a gamut of roughly restrained emotions, from the gritted teeth with which she bears the backhanded compliments of her peer, Luisito Calderon (Kirk Acevedo) to the unorthodox way in which she charms an eight-year-old eyewitness, allowing him to play with her gun. When the boy tells her that he’d use it to kill his mother’s murderer, she soberly promises she’d help.
Director Peter Berg doesn’t bother with much handholding; he trusts that you’ll understand Jane’s complexities, particularly by the climactic chase scene. Out of context, it seems only that she’s so driven to succeed that she’ll let nothing get in her way, recklessly veering against traffic and barely hesitating to check on her partner after crashing before continuing to pursue the suspect on foot. She’s an imperfect heroine, the sort who covers up her own insecurities by doubling down on her gut instincts. It’s why, after a moment of life-or-death helplessness, still gasping for breath, she jokes, “Do you have a cigarette?” (It’s practically a post-coital request, turning weakness into strength.)
Aside from a few slightly repetitive moments meant to emphasize Jane’s outsider status, the real focus of Prime Suspect is on the characters and their flaws. When, after Jane visits a police fundraiser, intent on boosting morale by buying her team a few rounds, she’s criticized for her cold opportunism; O’Byrne practically spits at her, and he comes across as neither a villain nor a bully, but as a wounded, emotional colleague. Even exposition is hard-won, thanks to Quinn’s portrayal of Jane’s world-weary lieutenant, who has to keep rebuilding the bridges Jane keeps burning.
The episode suggests that Prime Suspect has the potential to juggle characters, cases, and interrogations as successfully as Homicide, and that it’s capable of blurring moral lines as potently as The Shield. Either way, it’s arresting and criminally entertaining.