In crime TV, there’s another major push underway from NBC, Prime Suspect, that is bringing A-list talent to bear in an effort to seize some of those sweet, sweet CBS crime junky ratings. In Prime Suspect, Maria Bello, seen in such edgy theater releases as A History of Violence, plays a tough NYPD cop that just happens to be one of the ladies. But don’t be under the impression put forth by the ads growling that it’s “like nothing you’ve seen before.” It’s a full-fledged rip-off of a British TV show.
What’s more, it’s better than it. That’s right, critical community, the USA did a better job than the UK when it came to cobbling together this crime drama. BAFTA awards rained down on Helen Mirren, lead of the UK Prime Suspect, and the show, and they’re well deserved. The US show is going to rock a larger audience a lot deeper, because of the 5 Ways the US Prime Suspect Is Better Than the UK.
Mind you going into this, there’s no accounting for taste. The qualities of any show are a mixed blessing. So if your thing is a cerebral, soft-lit, slow-paced show about a female homicide investigator, don’t take this article personally. Just kick back with your yerba maté, put on some Tori Amos and scan what I have to say with a smug, amused detachment. You’re a better person than most of the American TV audience.
For the rest of you, you’ll like the US Prime Suspect because it has:
5. More Violence
A big part of the American cop show tradition is buckets of bloodshed, and Prime Suspect doesn’t disappoint. In the première episode, Maria Bello’s hardcore lady cop gets a dose of what Dame Helen rarely did: She gets beat into a pulp in a brutal tussle with a fleeing suspect.
Of course, she’s fine by the end of the episode—nothing a little concealer and some band-aids couldn’t patch right up. But such is crime TV in the USA. We don’t care about the realistic cost of a solid whupping, we just want to watch some folks throw down.
Why Is That Better?
Let’s be honest. Even US crime shows that win the hearts of a more refined set find that violence delights their “social realist” viewers and draws them to characters. Ask any fan of The Wire who their top-3 favorite characters are, and I would bet you a sawbuck that Omar Little is on the list. And who is Omar Little, you ask? He’s the scarred-up, shotgun-toting, balls-out bandit who pops into the maze-like plots of The Wire to settle shit with a frenzy of gunfire.
So let’s not kid ourselves, Americans. More violence is a plus.
4. More Arguing
People sure yell a lot in New York City, so I’ve heard, and if TV crime drama is any indication, it’s a tantrum every ten minutes in the Big Apple. Prime Suspect does not disappoint, with characters constantly fussing and feuding. Even when they’re blood relations, they find something to argue about. When it comes to actual enemies, firearms get drawn over issues like second-hand smoke and child psychology. In the UK Prime Suspect, most scenes were cordial enough to keep the personal attacks subtle and the volume down. In the USA, dialogue goes up to 11.
Why Is That Better?
Again, it’s not better on the basis of reality. But fiction is, by its nature, designed to be more entertaining than reality. If you don’t believe me, look at the capital-C “Classics” of the ancient world. If characters weren’t fighting mythical beasts or sexing up family relations, they were hollering at each other in song form.
This is because a fundamental tenet of storytelling is that conflict is what drives a story. By “drives,” this means “keeps people slack-jawed on the edge of their seat, rather than curling up to sleep in it.” Conflict puts things at risk, it infuses primal energy, it messes people up and forces them to grow or surrender. Cramming more conflict into scenes objectively makes them more interesting. And, as with The Wire, if you think I’m being Neanderthal about this, tell me how Glengarry Glen Ross isn’t the very model of this principle.
3. More Money
Prime Suspect doesn’t skimp on the travel budget, giving us New York-size slices of life from the Capitol of the World. Prime Suspect UK, at least in its initial seasons, couldn’t compete. Eventually they got the Euros to roam around London, but for a while there it was your typical, lean-budget BBC venture. Right off the bat, Prime Suspect USA soars us over the New York skyline, races through Central Park, hits a boxing match and cruises to a conclusion in a cemetery—as if a U.S. police procedural pilot episode could end with other than bagpipes and sad-faced children left behind by the fallen comrade.
Why Is That Better?
Variety is the spice of life, folks. We watch TV for a fistful of reasons, but wish-fulfillment is big among them. We want to go distinctive places, discover nifty cultures and see exciting things. Extol the virtues of the Upstairs, Downstairs approach of confining a show to four basic sets all you please—that is an exception to the rule, and it only succeeds because it reinforces a central message of the narrative about a household.
Prime Suspect, in both cases, is a narrative about a city—London for the UK, NYC for the US—and that city needed to be shown. The UK producers knew this, and did the best they could with a limited budget. The US producers have NBC stuffing cash into their pockets so that they can challenge CBS. The result of these factors is objective once again: The US can show more of New York, reveal more of its character and do so in a more elaborate way.
2. More Stories
As anybody who watches British crime TV drama will tell you, crimes take a good long while to solve—often an entire season. In the universe of US crime, cases are usually wrapped up in a 44-minute sprint through the legal system wedged in between beer ads. US Prime Suspect flings a bunch of badness in your face before the first commercial break and delivers pay-off by the time the credits roll.
Why Is That Better?
Because it’s bullshit, right? We all know that. Criminal cases—if they’re solved at all, and a majority of them aren’t—usually take months before they even have a shot at a satisfactory end. As we see in much of UK Prime Suspect, which typically featured one or two cases a season, police work involves maneuvering a bureaucracy, gathering and responsibly handling evidence, and only then securing a suspect. Any cosmos where Maria Bello can use a young boy’s composite sketch identification and a helpful janitor to nail a serial rapist in less than three days is as fantastical as a Bible coloring book.
It’s what we want, though. Like with the conflict, we usually don’t care to be educated—we already know from traffic court and identity theft and trials like Amanda Knox, Casey Anthony and the West Memphis Three that the justice system is retarded at best, dangerous at worst. We get it. What our hearts crave, even though we know Santa doesn’t exist, is the satisfaction of being led on a merry romp where we get invested, we get scared, and then we get to see it all work out.
Don’t believe me there either? Look again to The Wire, or even to The Sopranos—shows that boast a hyper-realistic outlook on crime. In both cases, die-hard fans bitched about how their favorite characters—Omar in The Wire, practically all The Sopranos—didn’t get a satisfying conclusion. Intellectualize drama all you’d like, but at the end of the series—or every episode—we want our heroes to win.
1. More Talent
Yeah, you read that right. US Prime Suspect has more talent than the UK Prime Suspect. It’s a better show because it has better people working on it.
This isn’t to knock Helen Mirren. I adore the woman and, as the archetype for just about every tough female cop protagonist in this day-and-age, she deserves her throne. And certainly, UK Prime Suspect had some awesome supporting talent, Ciaran Hinds—Rome’s Julius Caesar—chief among them.
But what US Prime Suspect has is a heap of technical talent and rock-solid character actors that the fledging UK Prime Suspect didn’t. Mirren got good material, but it was her presence that made it so dazzling while it was still finding its footing. By comparison, US Prime Suspect got the funding it needed to be a blockbuster right out the gate, with top-shelf directors, editors and producers utilizing a subtly star-studded cast.
Why Is That Better?
You just can’t argue that better talent isn’t better. It just is. And the results of that talent delivering all the strongest elements of the UK show in an American style truly shows.
Peter Berg is the head honcho behind US Prime Suspect, and he’s a homerun hitter when it comes to nailing viewership that straddles the thrill junkies and the smart, seasoned audiences. He floored me with Friday Night Lights, and The Kingdom is the smartest action film about the War on Terror. Berg assembled to support Bello character actors who all have played solid roles on critically acclaimed shows, such as The Shield, Band of Brothers and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The final product is a fierce, Hollywood drama machine tailor-made to draw awards and audiences into its gravity.
So, okay, that’s cynical in a way, and it sucks because it is. It isn’t the scrappy underdog, fighting its way up from humble beginnings, like Prime Suspect UK was. And it’s not, as I said at first, “like nothing you’ve ever seen before.” It’s about as risky and edgy as a Snuggie.
But Snuggies sell, because a blanket with sleeves is a pleasant experience. We can kid ourselves otherwise—scan down the list above and rail about artistic integrity and the purity of the creative process—but it doesn’t change the facts:
TV drama is a business. That business must sell what people want. And people want what entertains them better.
On Prime Suspect US v. Prime Suspect UK, that case is closed.
Disagree? Take the stand in the Comments below.
+Matthew Funk is a social media consultant, professional marketing copywriter and writing mentor. He is the editor of the Genre section of the critically acclaimed zine, FictionDaily and Full Stop. Winner of the Spinetingler award for Best Short Story on the Web 2010, M. C. Funk has been published at numerous sites online, indexed at his Web site, and in print with Needle Magazine, Howl, 6S and Crime Factory. He is represented by Stacia J. N. Decker of the Donald Maass Literary Agency.