LOS ANGELES — As wildly different as they were in execution, the originals of "Prime Suspect" and "Charlie's Angels" were, thematically, sisters of the same revolution. Although best known for flaunting the beauty of its shapely stars, "Charlie's Angels," which ABC launched in 1976, openly refuted the then-still-popular notion that women were the weaker sex.
The faceless Charlie hired women whose police careers had been squelched by stereotypes and created the first all-female detective agency on television. Likewise "Prime Suspect," which debuted in 1991 on Britain's ITV, revolved around Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), who, as Scotland Yard's first Detective Chief Inspector, was forced to prove to her often hostile colleagues and a skeptical public that a woman could be the right man for the job.
It's not surprising then that the reprises of both shows — "Charlie's Angels" again on ABC, "Prime Suspect" on NBC — face similar problems. Shapely women flaunt firearms and kick butt on a regular basis and no one makes the argument that the public just won't accept a female homicide detective. Good news for society, bad news for these shows, which have lost the novelty and the underlying tension of their originals.
For "Charlie's Angels," that loss proves fatal — in a post-Angelina Jolie world, the only reason to assemble a team of three hot women is to assemble a team of three hot women. The high gloss serio-silliness of the original is as dated as Farrah Fawcett's legendary hairstyle, but that doesn't stop creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar from adopting it, though they give it a "modern" twist. The new angels, who have a young and handsome Bosley (Ramon Rodriguez) and are in Miami (will they run into Dexter?) are no longer "three little girls" but "three young women" with murky pasts.
Abby (Rachael Taylor) is a thief, Kate (Annie Ilonzeh), a former cop, and Eve (Minka Kelly), a street racer, who joins the team after an original angel, Gloria, is killed early in the pilot by a car bomb. The remaining two swear revenge and reluctantly join forces with Eve to finish what Gloria started.
The writing is glib (the term "cat fight" is actually used) and the action relies more on gadgetry than "Mission Impossible." However, the women all look great.
"Prime Suspect," on the other hand, doesn't even use iPads. It has a cast just as strong as the original, although the sooner the new show parts company from the old, the better. Maria Bello plays Jane Timoney, a prickly detective who's been passed over for choice assignments — that is, until the death of a colleague leaves her in charge of a group of male detectives who all believe she slept her way to the department. Which, one supposes, is as good a vehicle as any for creating a group of surly men who would rather disrespect a female colleague than solve a case.
But their attitude is, strangely, even more openly hostile and ham-fisted than that which Mirren's Tennison faced, and without the institutional and social support. No doubt sexism still thrives within the New York Police Department, but writers Peter Berg and Alexandra Cunningham behave as if human resources, and lawyers, did not exist.
Fortunately, terrific performances all around quickly ground the tensions in character rather than theme. Timoney may be complicated in a rather predictable way — she's brilliant but socially inept, her job is tough on her home life, and she has recently quit smoking (nicotine gum is also the crutch of Mireille Enos' detective on "The Killing" — but Bello radiates an impatient, soulful intensity that pulls it all together. (I'm pretty sure "White Collar's" Matt Bomer wants his hat back, though.) Timoney also has Aidan Quinn — his single malt-dispensing Lt. Kevin Sweeney may be unwilling to remind his guys about the sexual harassment seminars they all undoubtedly attended, but he knows when and where to reign things in.
Including and especially Detective Reg Duffy, played by the always fabulous Brian F. O'Byrne, who is the show's main antagonist. Clearly driven by conflicting demons, he is as fascinating a character as Timoney — an exchange between the two of them at the end of the pilot turns on a dime and promises great things. It is also wonderful to see Kirk Acevedo, killed off all too soon in the main universe of "Fringe," as Detective Luisito Calderon, the detective who first begins to soften to Timoney.
Which they all will, eventually if not sooner, possibly even Duffy, because she is such a super-terrific detective. Much more super-terrific than Mirren's Tennison, whose cases were not solved in an hour by her wit and ferocious tenacity alone but by tedious, often mistake-pocked police work of the sort that is rarely seen on American television.
Which is why there is no point in comparing the two shows — they are separated by too much time, space and national personality. We Americans like our detectives to size up the situation in a glance, deftly wrest information and aid from witnesses, and fix any mistakes instantly and dramatically.
All of which Bello's Timoney does, making her a fine candidate for a highly successful American police franchise, with interesting characters and cases, but only a passing family resemblance to her distant and far more complex cousin Jane.