This show is always better when it remembers that real human interaction makes for better drama than the mechanics of solving procedurals. In the best episodes, the case of the week is an interesting enough MacGuffin to keep the plot moving, but the interactions between the characters are what makes the show worth watching, at least when they are well-observed and well-written. There has not been an excellent episode of Prime Suspect, but there have been some good episodes. Even these good episodes, however, featured some mediocre elements that were lifted overall by good performances and a few great scenes. The last three episodes in particular have been heavy on thudding plot mechanics and heavy on cliché, and, even more damningly, they’ve been lacking in the human element. In these episodes, the moments when the show attempted to jump into greatness came across as contrived and lifeless instead.
Tonight’s episode, the third-to-last in our continued Prime Suspect deathwatch, is a welcome return to drama worth watching, making it the first decent episode since mid-November. It follows the investigation of a man murdered in the basement of a Chinatown restaurant. The dead guy is one James Pageant (or possibly Pagett), a rich businessman with no apparent reason for turning up dead in this place. Timoney and Velerio immediately suspect a connection with an illegal poker game that meets upstairs, but all of the witnesses vanish when a powerful attorney for the Chinatown Benevolent Business Owners Association (or something like that) arrives. When they interview his wife, she insists that Pageant’s gambling days were behind him and that she always knew when he was lying in the past.
The investigation is a good MacGuffin, although it led to the awful and inconsequential pun of the title. As it turns out, the vanishing witnesses are as unimportant to the story as the connection to Chinatown. Forget it, Jake. It does lead to Timoney being dressed down by the Chief of Detectives, who reminds her that he reports to the Chief of Police, who reports to the mayor, who needs the votes that the Chinatown Benevolent etc. delivers in the next election. While I doubt that this conversation, fraught as it is with the smell of potential ethical violations, would happen in the open like it did, I like the reminder that Timoney’s work takes place in an institution that does not necessarily share her priorities.
I also like that the partner and his lawyer attempt to bury the investigation in boxes full of red herrings. The intrusion of the feds into the investigation give Timoney the opportunity to show off her hotshot deduction and intimidation skills, and it’s good to be reminded that she is a good cop in a way that doesn’t make her seem too good. The story dips towards the latter problem when she is the only one in a roomful of cops to give chase to the partner and lawyer, although the script at least playfully nods to this with her frustrated “where is everybody?”
The human elements, though, are what gives this episode its strengths and weaknesses. In the one most directly related to the case, the dead guy’s teenage son starts to act out, and Duffy reaches him with some tough love. This segment teeters on the edge of cliché, but Brian F. O’Byrne’s acting chops more or less sell his speech to the kid. I did not quite buy how receptive this teenager would be to that speech or that situation, but I completely believed that Duffy, the lonely, angry man desperate to prove that he is a good guy, would attempt to reach out like that.
The second major aside was between Augie and Calderon. Augie is refusing to take calls from his wife, a fact that is surprising in and of itself because he seems the most likely character on the homicide squad to be single. As it turns out, he had a vasectomy without telling her and then found out that despite her prior commitment to not having kids, she now wants a baby. He must have gone for one of those ultramodern Star Trek vasectomies that one can get in New York City, because otherwise, he would have missed a couple of days of work at the very least. Anyway, his unwillingness to share with Calderon, followed by his drunken plan to either reverse the vasectomy or lie to his wife about it, provided some wonderful material for his character. Calderon’s point-blank advice that Augie should not have kids with her was also choice. He delivered it with some excellent ambivalence about whether he meant that Augie should not have kids or Augie’s wife should not have kids or that they together would be unfit parents. Although he tells Augie that she’s crazy, he might be telling Augie what he thinks Augie needs to hear.
The last aside involves Velerio’s award and the drama that follows his ceremony. The ceremony itself had a little too much bullshit-throwing meant to suggest that cops are salt of the earth who kid each other constantly. Timoney’s chat with the other female detectives was good, though. I don’t really follow the motivations of any of the characters in the drama about Timoney and Costello that plays out first between Duffy and Timoney’s boyfriend Matt and later between Jane and Matt. When Duffy spills the beans about Timoney’s past affair with Costello, it is unclear whether he meant to stir up trouble for Timoney or not. It is possible that he simply meant to bond with Matt and it is also possible that he is attracted to Timoney. I doubt whether these motivations will become more clear over the final two episodes.
When they get home Matt is furious about his 40-odd-year-old girlfriend’s sexual past. Matt has always been a bit of a cipher, but his need for this fight is absurd. Was she supposed to have been a virgin? I am not sure whether we are supposed to agree with him or not, either. The episode later suggests that this is about Timoney being unwilling to open up about herself, but frankly, it appears to be a cruel burst of pointless anger from a guy who married and reproduced with a woman who has been portrayed as nothing but a psycho in her every scene on this show. His capper, “I can’t fight dirty like you,” is actually doing just that, throwing something she did for him back in her face. Timoney appears to be the victim throughout this tirade, but her later conversations with her father and the counselor indicate that the writers see her unwillingness to do anything different as a character flaw.
This is a tonal problem more than anything. I am a fan of ambiguity, especially when it comes to characters having messy motivations. I like being unable to figure out why Duffy was so anxious to chat with Matt about Timoney’s past, which is mostly because they’ve written Duffy to be an interesting and complex character. Matt, however, has not been given much to work with. His scenes have mostly involved his son and his ex, and the few between him and Timoney have not given him much depth. His character in this show is entirely contingent upon Timoney. Unlike her co-workers, who have been written with some depth and independence, Matt’s role in this drama is to make Timoney react. Viewers do not have enough information to speculate about his motives because he is not rounded out enough to have complex motivations. When the show puts words in his mouth, the character’s flatness and contingency mean that the audience is supposed to either agree or disagree with him. In this case, it appears that we were supposed to agree with his reaction or see the truth behind his anger or something like that. Instead, however, it seemed false and arbitrary. The idea of having Timoney fight with her boyfriend over her character flaws is a good one, but the execution here did not deliver, and not for a lack of trying on the part of the actors.
- I came in a little too late for the first scene. I saw Duffy in the counselor’s office, but caught none of the conversation.
- Both the wife and the counselor are played by actors who look quite familiar, but I cannot put a name to either, and neither IMDB nor the NBC site are any help.
- “You might think you’ve been there, but you’re just circling the airport. I’m living in the middle of downtown there.”
- The party I left to write this review had an open bottle of 14-year Oban, people. 14-year Oban! That’s how much I like my job.
- Next week: the penultimate episode. Given my holiday travel schedule, however, there is no way that I can review it. I will ask for a fill-in, but if one is not forthcoming, we may have to work around by covering the last two episodes together.