Saturday, September 24, 2011

"Prime Suspect" and "Person of Interest"

Here are some quick thoughts on the two new Thursday crime dramas. No, "Charlie's Angels" doesn't count.

"Prime Suspect" stars Maria Bello as newly transferred New York detective Jane Timoney, facing a hostile work environment both for her gender and the persistent rumors that she got the job because she slept with a higher-up. Aidan Quinn plays her immediate superior, Lt. Kevin Sweeney, who offers his sympathies but has to be prodded to act on her behalf. Among her co-workers, Detective Duffy (BrĂ­an F. O'Byrne) is the most openly hostile, but Detective Calderon (Kirk Acevedo) appears to be coming over to her side by the end of the episode. Kenny Johnson plays Timoney's non-law enforcement boyfriend, and Peter Gerety makes a welcome appearance as her father.

With so many other crime dramas on the air, "Prime Suspect" does a decent job of distinguishing itself quickly. In the pilot, Bello's Timoney is a credible hardass, but a sympathetic one. We understand why she keeps getting on everyone else's nerves without getting on the nerves of the audience. And not once does Maria Bello look like she just spent two hours in a make-up chair, even in her scenes off duty, which I appreciate so much. Timoney does have one major gimmick, though. She likes wearing wearing a hat, which some critics and fashionistas have taken offense to. I swear that half the chatter online about the show so far has been about the hat. You know what? It's just a hat. Bello wears it fine, it helps her character stand out, and it doesn't take away from her performance. I'm pro-hat. Let's move on.

The sexism Timoney faces is a little too open and obvious, but it's tied into other personal resentments well enough that we can be assured this isn't going to turn into a "message" show. What I did like was the way that the writing subverted the dramatic tricks of other police dramas like "Law & Order," and showed Timoney taking pains to follow procedural rules in conducting interviews and collecting evidence. Timoney is tripped up at one point by a small detail - someone gave her a wrong address - and her perp chase doesn't go the way the audience has been trained to expect. This appeal to realism is sometimes a little too pointed, like when she remarks at one point that lab results take a while, unlike "on TV," but the creators' hearts and heads are in the right place, so I'm more forgiving.

We'll see how the show holds up after a few more episodes, but I'm definitely happy to jump the "Law & Order" ship for "Prime Suspect" this season. Wednesday's "Law & Order: SVU" season premiere has put me off that franchise for a while.

On to "Person of Interest." This is the JJ Abrams produced, Jonathan Nolan created series about a one-man-army, Mr. Reese (Jim Caviezel), who stops future crimes using information provided by Mr. Finch (Michael Emerson), who has created a program that analyzes surveillance data to look for impending criminal acts. If "Prime Suspect" is all about looking at crime dramas with a more cynical eye, "Person of Interest" is pure escapism. The hero is a broken-hearted mystery man who once worked for the government in some kind of ass-kicking capacity. We first see him as a homeless drifter bundled in overcoats, his movie star face obscured by a thick, graying beard. However, his efficient takedown of a gang of young toughs on the subway reveals his hidden talents.

After Reese is arrested and briefly questioned by Detective Carter (Taraji P. Henson), who gets only two short scenes this week, but should be expected to have a bigger role in the weeks to come, Mr. Finch enters the picture. He runs his own mini-"Minority Report" operations in secret, and offers to give Reese some much needed purpose in life. The program Finch created only gives up social security numbers of people who are headed in the direction of trouble, and doesn't indicate if they're victims or perpetrators. So Finch needs Reese to help him do investigative legwork and kick the offending asses of those who turn out to be the baddies.

There are so many holes and contrivances in this premise, I don't know where to start. First, the action appears to be arbitrarily limited to Manhattan. The "persons of interest" being investigated must have social security numbers, which rules out foreign visitors and undocumented aliens. Finch, in spite of his wealth, chooses a single man to help him with crime prevention. Maybe Reese is the first of many? Or Finch has set up more operatives in other cities? It all feels off, especially the way these two super-secretive, super-skilled men just take each other at face value immediately. And there are a lot of awkward moments, like Reese's boring flashbacks to cuddling with his expired ex, and a misplaced 9/11 reference.

But in the end it doesn't matter, because the primary reason for watching the series is to see Jim Caviezel play vigilante and go around shooting people with assault rifles and blowing up cars. Caviezel is a strangely blank presence throughout most of the hour, but whenever he starts roughing up antagonists, suddenly his monotone voice gets a little more Batman, and his physicality demands attention. I don't know if they can keep this up over multiple episodes though, especially as the budget shrinks and we may have to spend more time watching Caviezel try to emote. Not an appealing prospect right now.

However, Michael Emerson is a lot of fun, and Taraji P. Henson should help once they give her more to do. "Person of Interest" has plenty of promise, but it's starting out with a really flimsy gimmick that's not going to hold up by itself for very long. Also, I'm not sure whether Caviezel is playing Reese as this total nonentity or if his acting's really gotten this stiff. It's been a while since I've seen Caviezel in anything, so I honestly can't tell. In any case, this show could be a winner, but it's going to need a lot of work.

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