As long as we knew it was coming, I’ve been a vocal, even loud skeptic of the idea of a Prime Suspect remake. Helen Mirren’s performance as Jane Tennison is definitive, I thought. American network television would never portray a character who’s that actively and interestingly difficult, an alcoholic who kind of uses the men she dates, who has an abortion as if it’s matter-of-fact. And most importantly, I thought that the way the show dealt with institutionalized sexism might feel kind of unfortunately dated. But you know what? I was wrong. And I’m quite sorry to hear that the show is going to sideline sexism in future episodes.
What changed my mind was a summer where two now-former New York police officers, Kenneth Moreno and Franklin Mata, were acquitted of raping a woman they were supposed to help get safely home, in part because one of the jurors wondered, “What if [Moreno and the victim] became close? What if they hit it off, somewhere between the taxicab and the dead roach? A moment that turned into conversation, that turned into flirting? What if it all led to something that Moreno thought was consensual?” It was a summer where another cop, Michael Pena, was charged with 10 counts of rape and assault, and is now under investigation for attacking two other women. And it was a summer where the Manhattan district attorney walked away from a sexual assault prosecution but not before utterly hanging the victim out to dry.
I don’t believe all cops are rapists. I don’t think that Special Victims Units always let women down, though I’m confident what happens there is more complicated than what I see on Law & Order: SVU. But you know what? I do believe a force that includes people who abuse their power to assault people might also include people who say things about women detectives like “A squad is only as good as its beef trust, because the beef trust only cares about the work…The beef trust can’t flutter their eyelashes. All the beef trust can do is the work. That’s why the beef trust deserves the jobs. All the jobs.” That there are probably cops who hate sexual harassment laws and complain that “You scratch your batteries and it’s a hostile work environment…She’s one of us until it suits her not to be.”
And I believe that it’s important for there to be, among all the other shows that lionize our police forces, one that explores and is attentive to that reality; that explains that men can be both loving fathers to their daughters and awful to their female coworkers. The show is smart enough to have her obnoxious coworkers have a sense that they’ve crossed a line, even though where they draw the line is not even close to where I’d draw the line. At a benefit, when Jane offers to buy her coworkers a drink and one of the guys on the squad goes off on her, telling his colleagues not to take her money because “Tell that bitch it’s no good in here,” calling her an “opportunistic whore,” their other male coworkers tell the guy to can it, and get him out of the way. They may not comfort Jane, but they aren’t totally monsters, which makes the portrait of them as sexists much more convincingly damning than making them all monsters.
And it helps that Bello is very good, and her character isn’t a direct copy of Mirren’s Jane Tennison. She’s in a steady relationship with a divorced man, Eddie, whose ex-wife uses Jane as an excuse to make it harder for Eddie to see his son. She’s also aware about when she’s screwing up, as when she asks too quickly after one of the officers in the squad dies if she can have his case. “I just thought I gotta ask now while they’re distracted, before they can regroup, right?” she agonizes to her father. “I thought that was my only chance, but maybe it wasn’t. Maybe I should have waited. Maybe I shouldn’t have asked at all. Or maybe, I should have called Dan Costello and ask for the job because that’s what they all think I do anyway.” Just because she’s treated badly doesn’t mean she does everything right. After she discovers major new information in a case, she’s prickly with a coworker who is acknowledging the merits of her work. “Can I ask you something?” he says, exasperated. “You ever worry that someone might drop a house on you?” “This car won’t drive itself,” she tells him dourly. It’s not quite the moment in the original where Mirren tells a coworker who keeps calling her Ma’am and suddenly switches to Sir that “My voice suddenly got lower, has it? Maybe my knickers are too tight. Listen, I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don’t like Ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen. So take your pick.” But it’s it’s own thing. And in its own way, it’s as important a story now is it was in 1991.