Jane Learns The Ropes – Reviewing Prime Suspect: Tennison, Episode 1

by Rachel Bellwoar

It’s been eleven years since the last Prime Suspect. Not counting the US remake (which had critics too hypnotized by Maria Bello’s fedora to notice the show’s quality), the series ran for seven, nonconsecutive seasons, and starred Helen Mirren’s acclaimed performance as DCI Jane Tennison.

Masterpiece’s new series, Tennison (or 1973, as it’s titled in the UK), markets itself as a Prime Suspect prequel, but doesn’t much present as one while you’re watching. That isn’t the fault of anyone involved but has a lot to do with Prime Suspect being unobliging to the prequel treatment. Besides being Mirren’s show, Prime Suspect was Jane’s. Everything centered around her. Very occasionally there’d be a familiar face (Tom Bell’s in seasons one and three) but there were no other regulars.  Jane never stayed in one place and those changes of precinct and position meant constant fluxes of new coworkers. Since Tennison can’t rely on familiar names, there’s little to make the series feel apiece with its parent show.

So why watch this procedural? Set in Hackney, London (the same year as Acorn’s Life on Mars) the show comes with the automatic windfall of a rocking soundtrack and period fashion. Blind Faith’s, “Can’t Find My Way Home,” plays in the first minute and the rest of the music is on par from there.

Stefanie Martini is an instantly likable successor to Mirren’s Jane, but also takes an easy route to likability: jump off a bus to help a woman who’s being mugged. The scene is successful, but could be accused of doing its job too well, since any person in that situation comes out looking good. A larger point to this opening, however, comes up later, when the woman’s desire not to report the crime folds back into the episode’s investigation of a young woman’s murder.

The idea behind Tennison is to show Jane learning the ropes for the first time. While it’s strange to hear her asking novice questions, Martini’s delivery is to Tennison’s credit. She’s not a nervous beginner but someone who asks without being restrained by pride or fear–who holds learning to be too important to be inhibited. Also interesting is seeing the independent Tennison living at home, where her family thinks so highly of her career that her mom keeps bringing up her sister’s marriage, and why hasn’t she found time to try the bride’s maid’s dress?

One thing you can always count on with Tennison is her track record with men. Watching her mentor, DI Len Bradfield (Sam Reid) — an otherwise natural teacher–not know how to handle a momentary lapse in professionalism is just typical. Wait until he starts telling the story about another young officer he trained. His commitment to seeing that tale through is like it’s his life line out of uncomfortableness.

The episode ends with the murder solved but another crime in progress. It’s unclear whether that’s all the closure we’re going to get or if episode two will pick-up in the same place (there’s also something in the description the cops first receive of the victim’s boyfriend that could be something or nothing). Prime Suspect has tried both styles before, a single case to last the season and a new case for each episode, and usually the ongoing cases fare better.

Tennison doesn’t disassociate itself from other British dramas, and it’s not Prime Suspect, but the performances (Law & Order: UK‘s Jessica Gunning was a welcome surprise) are more than enough reason to stick around.

Tennison airs Sundays at 10PM on PBS’ Masterpiece.