Every so often, a television program like the ITV series 'Prime Suspect' will become something of an institution unto itself. Over here in the U.S., that means we get things like 'CSI' and its countless geographically distinctive spin-offs – which, I believe, have now spread to such diverse locales as Sheboygan, WI and Rapid City, SD, but don't quote me on that – or 'Law & Order' and its obsession with taking crimes from real-life and making them as lurid and horrifically sleazy as possible, and, then, of course, there is the 'NCIS' franchise which simultaneously breathed new life into the careers of former Boy Wonders and aging rappers alike. The point is: crime shows in the U.S. tend to follow a strict formula that appeals primarily to a rapidly aging demographic and seems to have a business plan not too dissimilar from your average McDonald's franchisee.
Across the pond, however, things are little different. You see, the English love them some crime fiction just as much as we do (though possibly not as much as the Scandinavians, but then, who does, really?). But rather than filling the audience's insatiable need for more by actually producing more and, subsequently, diluting the product until it's no longer enjoyable in even its original form, they string a program out over several years by producing seven separate series, each consisting of two, roughly two-hour episodes (series four of 'Prime Suspect' notwithstanding) that, while sometimes being just as short on originality and heavy on procedure as 'CSI' or 'Law & Order,' still manages to create a consistent desire to see more because of the relative scarcity of it all. Oh, that and headlining the whole thing is Emmy and Academy Award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren.
The series began in 1991 with the original mini-series, simply titled 'Prime Suspect,' which took the standard police procedural and added an extra layer of intrigue to the proceedings by making the central protagonist an intelligent, straightforward, ambitious, and sexually liberated woman by the name of Jane Tennison. DCI (that's Detective Chief Inspector) Tennison began the series battling the misogyny and sexism of her male counterparts, many of whom were unable to reconcile their long-held beliefs about women in general, let alone women in the workplace or, heaven forbid, women in a position of authority within the confines of a male-dominated profession such as law enforcement. The themes of sexism and gender equality were heavy throughout the first installment and were also a major part of the series' initial appeal – which, consequently led to the show being adapted by NBC in 2011, in its extremely short-lived version starring Maria Bello and a hat.
But the heavy sexism theme also played a major part in the crime Tennison and her associates were investigating: the serial rape, torture and murder of several young women. Naturally, being a procedural titled 'Prime Suspect,' the series' focused on the investigation of a single suspect, through the standard collection of evidence and interrogation that would or already had become part and parcel to procedural shows on either side of the Atlantic. This straightforward form of storytelling, mixed with some heavy social commentary of some sort made the series a success and spawned four sequels between 1992-1996, until the series was picked up again in 2003 for 'Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness' and again in 2007 for the final installment, 'Prime Suspect 7: The Final Act.'
As the series progressed, each subsequent installment sought to tackle a different social topic that was tangentially related to the crime Tennison would be investigating. 'Prime Suspect 2' tackled the issue of racism and classism, while 'Prime Suspect 3' found Jane working in the vice squad with the central story revolving around child pornography, sexual abuse and homosexuality – which the series addressed in a somewhat ham-fisted and clumsy manner by having two police detectives dress in drag to bust said prostitution ring, while another reveals his sexual orientation in the middle of a debriefing by simply stating, "I'm gay." Naturally, this leads to some discrimination within the department that mirror's Jane's experiences, but, unfortunately, the series would prove more interested in the lascivious nature of the case itself (in addition to a bevy of soon-to-be-recognizable guest stars that included: Mark Strong ('Zero Dark Thirty'), Ciarán Hinds ('Game of Thrones'), Peter Capaldi ('The Thick of It' and upcoming: 'Dr. Who'), David Thewlis ('Harry Potter') and Johnny Lee Miller of 'Trainspotting' fame) to adequately focus on the ramifications and prejudices of officers faced with accepting one of their own is also a member of the homosexual community.
Part of this could be due to the split in the storyline that would also put focus on Tennison's personal life, to the degree that she would develop a relationship and see it strained as her profession demanded more and more of her time, which, considering her rather obsessive, irascible personality was quite alright by her. In the initial miniseries, Tennison would find herself in a tenuous relationship with a divorcee played by Tom Wilkinson and, it's not much of a spoiler to reveal that things don't turn out so well by the end of that series. As the series would go on, Jane would begin relationships or have brief flings with men that she was acquainted with or had just met, and, as they do in the James Bond films, she would be found single by the start of the next installment with no explanation as to how or when things had gone south in the relationship.
These two aspects allowed the series to maintain a formula of sorts that it would carry until the seventh and final installment. For the most part, it worked fairly well; 'Prime Suspect' was nothing if not reliable, surface-level entertainment that was also well acted. In fact, Mirren would take home her first Emmy award for 'Prime Suspect 4: The Scent of Darkness,' which would revisit characters from the first miniseries, while, oddly enough, wind up being my choice for weakest entry in the collection. In that regard, 'Prime Suspect 4' was also the only split entry in the collection, telling three separate, self-contained stories that wildly altered the way the program handled the narrative, and, when viewed in more rapid succession, as this Blu-ray collection offers the ability to do, comes across less like the series was attempting to do something new, and more like it was running out of steam.
But, for whatever reason, series 5 ended the experiment of 'Prime Suspect' working episodically (an aspect that made its U.S. conversion somewhat disappointing and difficult to engage with) and back came Tennison to the single storyline formula that had served the program so well and for so long. And while the series returned to a more standard storytelling mode, it did bring the series 4 colon to the naming convention, which resulted in 'Prime Suspect Series 5: Errors of Judgement.' After that, however, it would be seven long years before Jane Tennison took to television screens again, and by that time the series would have moved into the realm of high definition, and found it was competing for eyeballs with television programs that had adopted a similarly dark and complex style of storytelling centered on a difficult, sometimes unlikable protagonist.
And yet, oddly enough, the darker and more cold-blooded the other shows seemed to get in their characterization, the more likable Jane Tennison became, as the end of her career loomed ever closer on the horizon. The last two series of 'Prime Suspect' depicted a Jane Tennison on the precipice of retirement, and, strangely that seemed to put her in a state of mind that began to feel contrary to the portrayal of the sometimes-disagreeable hero that had been depicted under series creator Lynda La Plante's tenure on the show.
In all, 'Prime Suspect' boils down to a fascinating and entertaining series to watch. But when viewed in succession on this collection, it becomes a series that successfully tells a different, more complex and absorbing tale of a career-oriented woman in a male-dominated environment. When watched closer together, the stories of Jane Tennison working her way up the ranks of the police department masterfully depict her struggles against misogyny and sexism, and how, at times, she was forced to use those negative sentiments to her advantage, or combat them directly. For as formulaic and heavy-handed as the series could be at times, it always managed to come back to the brilliance of Mirren's performance, which put the emphasis on the character, her choices and the interesting things that sprang from those decisions.
And as such, the series will always be remembered for Mirren's deft touch and commanding performance that managed to rise above the rote procedural aspects of the program. If you haven't seen the series before, or it's been years since you've last visited, this collection is certainly worth your time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection' comes as seven 50GB Blu-ray discs from Acorn and RLJ Entertainment. All discs feature a brief preview for other releases from the company before jumping to a static menu that allows you to choose between playing the two parts (unless you're on disc 4) separately or all at once. Discs 6 & 7 also contain the special features.
As each disc explains, most of 'Prime Suspect: The Complete Collection' has been remastered from the original program elements, but "viewers may notice variable quality due to the inherent limitations and age of the original elements." What that basically means is: Sometimes the image will look great, and display a significant improvement on the image from when it was first presented on television, or even the DVD version that was released not long ago, and sometimes the picture will look pretty dreadful.
What they don't tell you is that there's zero consistency to what looks great and what looks decidedly not-so-great, and so there will be moments when Jane is presented in her full high-definition glory while the person or persons she's talking to (in what was obviously shot for coverage) sort of look as though they've been filmed by a camera with Vaseline on the lens. The effect is so weird, in fact, that although the dialogue matches up, it's difficult to escape the feeling that halfway through the episode, 'Prime Suspect' has turned into another insufferable Internet mash-up.
Thankfully, the moments where this issue arises are relatively few – though, series 4 contains more instances of it than any other disc in the collection. Moreover, series 4, part 1 holds the dubious honor of having the worst presentation of any episode in the collection. Clearly there was some issue with the source material, as what is actually presented looks more like the best of what was available to those at Acorn tasked with restoring the program, and all they were offered from ITV simply wasn't very good.
Overall, however, when the Blu-ray isn't dealing with issues mentioned above, it all looks rather fantastic. Some will take issue with the way all seven series (with the notable exception of, again, series 4, episode 1) have had their aspect ratios changed from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1 (aside from series 6 and 7, which were originally filmed that way), but for the most part the change seems to work well and doesn't significantly alter the composition of the product in a negative way. Otherwise, the level of detail, vibrancy of the color and the depth of the image all seem to look great.
There is a significant improvement in the level of fine detail that's presented in the actors' faces and in the smaller details like clothing texture and background elements. Similarly, the image is just much brighter and, as a result, colors seem to pop and there appears to be an extra level of dimensionality to the product that was never really seen before. Contrast levels are quite high for the most part – though, as mentioned above, there are moments where the source material doesn't present darker images accurately and they are filled with grain and generally make it difficult to see details. Still, when the image is consistent, it looks on par with the more recently filmed and pristine elements of series 6 and 7.
All in all, the image can feel like a bit of a crapshoot. While the fully restored elements tend to look great, that greatness just makes the sub par sections look even worse.
Unlike the image, the DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 is a far more consistent affair. That's not to say it's as exciting a package as some of the newly restored elements of 'Prime Suspect' are, but it is far more reliable. It's like the difference between a Honda Accord and a Jaguar E-Type and, as a result, there's not a whole lot to say about the audio mix, other than it suitably gets the job done without encouraging much in the way of praise or criticism.
This is a straight-up police procedural, so the primary component of every episode is the dialogue, and in that regard, the audio here always hits the mark. Actors are clearly understood and their voices sound very precise – especially that of Steven Mackintosh in series 5 – and they all resonate appropriately. On the other hand, this isn't your average police procedural, so there is little in the way of sound effects that are typically present in other shows. In that regard, 'Prime Suspect' comes across as being very flat; the series is practically (and thankfully) devoid of things like car chases and shoot-outs, so much of the sound effects are actually given over to smaller atmospheric sounds that normally fill a police precinct or detectives' briefing room.
There is some decent extension going on across the two channels, and for the most part the dynamic range is as good as you might expect, coming from an early '90s television series. Again, this isn't a spectacular sounding mix, but it definitely gets the job done in the areas needing it the most.
'Prime Suspect' certainly stands as the precursor to shows like 'CSI' and 'NCIS,' but more importantly, it's true legacy is that of a popular television program that featured a female lead – something that's still all too rare. For anyone who is a fan of Dame Helen Mirren, or just quality police procedurals, this collection will certainly be right up your alley. Although the video can be spotty in bits, it can also be rather impressive, and while the audio isn't exactly thrilling, it does get the job done competently and without much complaint. This collection comes recommended.