Based on the critically-acclaimed British television series of the same name, Prime Suspect has been redeveloped for the US audience by producer Alexandra Cunningham and director/producer Peter Berg.
The show stars Maria Bello as New York City homicide Detective Jane Timoney, based on Helen Mirren’s character Detective Jane Tennison in the original. She’s an outsider who is confident and gruff, often offending her fellow officers.
Alexandra Cunningham spoke with TV Critics about the challenge of bringing a noted and successful series from England, and reimagining it for a new audience.
Going forward, can you talk about how you’ll balance whatever case the detectives are working on versus the character-based stuff with Detective Timoney?
We’ve got a lot of really juicy cases that we’ve broken for the show, and we’re going to make sure that there’s enough of a balance that people who are fans of procedurals feel really satisfied by the cases in each episode.
But we’re going to have a lot of fun with Maria’s character and her personal life. And going forward, we’re going to get to know the other cops as well and go home and get some personal beats with them.
How much of the original series are you going to incorporate in the US version?
When it comes to the seven series of [the British] Prime Suspect I have watched them so many times I could act them out for you.
There’s so much great stuff in there that we obviously want to use as touchstones and we want to use it because we can, because we own it, to make our own show great. But we also want fans of the original to be able to tune into ours and enjoy it on its own level.
How much, if at all, are you going to deal with her alcoholism from the original series?
I feel like we’ve seen alcoholic cops a lot. And obviously, twenty years ago it was groundbreaking, especially to see a woman drinking that much as a cop.
Everybody is familiar with all seven series and where that ended, which was Jane coming to work drunk and almost getting in drunk?driving accidents, and going to AA and that kind of thing, which was, like I said, amazing for that character but maybe not as groundbreaking to do now.
We’re going to find our own journey to go on with Jane. Every cop I know who is not actively in AA, the drinking is just a part of everyday life and a way that they cope. And so it will be part of the show, but I don’t know that we’re going to show our Jane descending into alcoholism in the same way.
Could you see doing cases that maybe take more than one episode to solve, following the original’s modality in that way?
Hopefully going forward, we’ll start to do B stories that take more than one [episode] to solve. But I want people if they want to drop in and watch an episode to be satisfied. Then there will be continuing stories that people, who tune in more than once, will get the resolution to and feel good. We’re going to serve a lot of masters and hopefully successfully.
In recent years we’ve seen a lot of female cops depicted on network television, but they all seem to fit the same mold, the same leather jacket, the same beating up guys like guys do. How do you create a character that feels unique when there are so many of these characters that seem like they’re cut from the same cloth?
I’m lucky enough to have the source material, which is Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, strong, rude, ambitious, selfish, all of these great qualities that make a really watchable character, so I have that to draw on.
But I also have Maria to do a brand-new modern version of it. I think that our character has all the qualities that made Jane Tennison so watchable, but also we’re trying to incorporate maybe a little more humor in it than the British version.
And what we have that no other show has is Maria. She’s just so watchable. You’re not going to be able to take your eyes off her. So that’s the advantage I have that no one else has.
I know this is a different series, but inevitably people are going to compare the two shows. Does that make you a little uncomfortable?
I would read the letter I got from Lynda La Plante (who created the original series) out loud, but it’s at the framer’s so I can’t.
But she really was so complimentary about Maria. She couldn’t be happier that Maria’s shouldering the character now, and she said a lot of stuff that brought a tear to my eye. I think that she is happy it’s being modernized and there’s nobody better to do it than Maria, and that Maria reminds people of Helen Mirren in her strength and her complete lack of vanity.
Have you received any letters from Helen?
Actually, around the time of the Oscars, somebody corralled her at an Oscar party and asked her what she thought of Maria’s casting, and she said that she thought that Maria was the best possible choice for the role. Not that I was worried at that point, but it was nice to get that vote of confidence.