Maria Bello and Alexandra Cunningham prep “Prime Suspect”

How can you take a role made famous by Helen Mirren and make it better? Well it remains to be seen if it’s a possibility, but NBC has hired the best people to give it a try. The role: Jane Tennison, detective, from the British show Prime Suspect. The new NBC series stars Maria Bello in Helen’s old holster, but set in New York City, present day.

Headed by executive prouder Alexandra Cunningham, the show is off to a great start. Not only did Helen give Maria the thumbs up, telling a reporter they picked the best person for the job, but Alexandra told reporters at the NBC TCA press day that she received a sweet letter from the original show’s creator, Lynda La Plante, that brought a tear to her eye. All this sentimental stuff is kind of funny, considering the show is gritty, Jane is tough, and the whole hour-long procedural drama is considerably tense, with just enough comic relief not to completely depress viewers for the remaining episodes of the show.

There are so many now, but Jane Tennison was the original TV female detective. And that’s one reason Cunningham isn’t worried about Maria’s Jane falling into stereotypes.

“I’m lucky enough to have the source material that most people were copying from, which is Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison,” Cunningham said. “Strong, rude, ambitious, selfish — all these great qualities that make a really watchable character. So I have that to draw on, but I also have Maria to do a brand new modern version of it. … At the end of the day, what we have that no other show has is Maria, and she’s just so watchable and you’re not going to be able to take her eyes off her.”

Maria embodies all of those less than flattering adjectives, but she’s also sarcastic and funny, and completely unafraid.

“I like to say that I’m not Jane — Alex and I are Jane together,” Maria said. “Without the writing, the quirkiness and edginess that this character has, this dry sense of humor, she wouldn’t be able to come to life. We all agreed in the beginning not to make her a conventional cop, right? My favorite shows growing up were like Baretta, Columbo and Kojak and they all had their own thing, their own quirk and we haven’t seen a woman like that on television — a woman detective.”

What viewers might find infuriating (and intentionally so) is the sexism Jane encounters. She was hired in the homicide unit for closing a big case, but the male detectives are sure it’s because she slept with a bureau chief. (She did date him, but that’s not why she got the job.) Jane has to prove herself, which is made more difficult when a respected detective dies and she steps right up to take over his case. An opportunist? Yes, but also someone who is determined to succeed.

“The sexism in the pilot is sort of driven by the character who dies, Detective Keating,” Alexandra said, “and that his guys kind of take their lead from him and when he’s gone, obviously it’s 2011 there’s no institutionalized sexism, there’s Human Eesources, women have recourse at work when things happen, but when you make those choices, you become the person who made those choices. So Maria’s character is someone who’s just going to buckle down and do her job and ignore that kind of thing.”

“I think some of the characters will react to her in a traditionally sexist way and other characters will sort of not like her because of the kind of person she is. She’s very rude and uncompromising and ambitious and thinks the world is a meritocracy and people don’t expect that in work in general and sometimes not from a woman. So we’re going to explore it that way and make it more realistic because sexism isn’t gone, it’s kind of more subtle and insidious in the modern world and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”

Another thing that is going to be a little different for Maria’s Jane is the presence of this hat.

When a reporter who did not care for the hat asked Maria if it was staying, she said it most definitely is. “I was obsessed with the hat. I feel like it’s my magic hat. When I put it on, I was this character. It felt right to me, that’s who Jane is,” she said.

Alexandra said that their visit to actual NPYD offices confirmed that many detectives wear hats. “I was surprised at the number of fedoras,” she said, “especially given it’s 2011.” She added, “It’s Maria’s iconic idiosyncrasy.”

The cast and crew assured us that we will see not only a procedural cop drama, but a lot of Jane’s personal life. She has a boyfriend who shares custody of his child with his ex-wife, a rude woman who does not want her son in a house with guns.

She’s got a lot of things happening at home and on the job, but if anyone can handle it, it’s the original bad ass, updated for today’s trying, yet still, sexist times.

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