A Few TV Thoughts, Lighting a Writer's Toolkit

Discrimination Works in the Right Tone

ed-it verb. to prepare (text) for publication by checking and improving its accuracy, clarity, etc. Whether you edit in words or edit them out, the point of going over your work is to improve each element of your story. Editing is like a muscle: the more you examine the problems in other works the easier it is to diagnose troubled areas in your own work. Writing Diagnostic is a monthly post where I explore weak points in a specific work and suggest solutions to strengthen the story as a whole.

Writing Diagnostic #4:  let’s explore how one character change could have saved the discrimination in Prime Suspect.

I love the start of things. The first blush of love. A tendril unfurling from the rich soil. Your first bite of a brand new recipe. The darkness that fills the theater on opening night. There is an anticipation that builds in your breast, centered, at the heart, on the unknown. That’s why I love watching the premieres of new television shows.

The faltering steps of a writer’s new baby making their debut in the world…the introductions, the potential, the buzz, it all creates this environment of creativity and exploration. As a writer myself I know we worry – will our work say something about its maker that will embarrass us, will it reveal an inner strength that swells our chest? Whatever feelings, good or bad, you have for your work, what matters first is that it’s complete (pat yourself on the back!) and second, and perhaps most important, how it is received. For the audience, they know what they want it to be – but will it?

Prime Suspect Header

That’s the power of premieres! Whether a new television show or a returning favorite – premieres set the tone for the year’s stories. We get a sense of the character, their relationships and their struggles. The mechanics of a new show are established. Will it be a procedural or character driven? Who are the rivals, villains and antagonists? Who are the besties, allies and lovers? What is the protagonist’s weakness and strength?

I wanted to watch Maria Bello’s new series, Prime Suspect, since I found out she was starring in a TV show. I didn’t really know what it was about, except they remade a Helen Mirren series. Bello has a certain quality about her that says strong, independent woman, not in an unattractive butch sort of way but a wholly feminine one.

The opener really caught me, simple but speaking to character. I knew what sort of woman and detective Jane made right from the beginning. When we got to the squad room things became distinctly uncomfortable. A knot of anxiety built-in my belly as I realized along with Jane that the case the other two detective were talking about really belonged to Timoney. I thought she held her cool a lot better than I ever could have, even with my boss.

Injustice makes my blood boil and this situation between Jane and her fellow detective just wasn’t right. I knew without knowing the details, no way did she sleep with big cheese, Dan Costello, to get her rank. No, she earned her way. I liked her by the book attitude and how she crossed off a suspect and found a lead because of it. I became just as caught up with her boyfriend’s conflict with his ex-wife and his desperate need to have his kid over to his apartment. Without going into further detail here, I can’t rave about this show enough. The cast, the realism and the story arcs all work. The writing and dialogue are spot on as well.

Prime Suspect Cast

Possibly the only con of the series is the chance for the writers to cross the line and become too heavy-handed, especially with the gender discrimination and the work place conflict. The show is already tense enough and the balance needs to be maintained perfectly. I also realize she needed to run after her suspect at the end and risk getting a beat down by him because that’s the kind of woman she embodies. I also don’t want that theme repeated the exact same way each and every episode either.

In Prime Suspect’s premiere, the details are what really made the difference. In choosing wardrobe with the fedora and her civilian bobby jacket, Bello balances between her English roots and wearing her uniqueness externally. The men in her squad wear a suit. They could have put her in a female suit. Instead they illustrated she wasn’t your typical anything by the manner of her dress.

In choosing where she works at home. The location where she thinks and ponders and spreads her photographs the bathroom was the perfect choice. No overdone dining room table, no lying in bed with her partner while he reads. You know the woman is ready and willing to use every resource in her power no matter how lowly.

The opener spoke right to character. She was out there to try to beat her smoking habit. When she gets into a taxi and the driver is puffing away she asks him to put it out. When that doesn’t work she insists. It’s not about being nice or politically correct or making friends. It’s about keeping at it and not letting others distract you from the prize if you can help it. Later you find out she’s doing all that so her father will quit smoking too. If she does it there is no excuse.

That scene with her father really worked because she was there to store her guns for her boyfriend so he could have his kid over to their apartment. An excellent way to introduce us to the father and not a contrived moment. Of course she’s going to ask after his smoking and mention her own at the same time. She going to talk with him about some work choices she made and she can be open with him. It all makes sense plot wise but also emotionally. Her boyfriend and her father are her emotional connection to the world.

The bold way she blindsided her boss by asking for the case while he was still grieving spoke to me on a primal level. After her interactions in the bull pen with her colleagues you needed to know she wasn’t going to be pushed around. Her believability as a protagonist was in question and she answered the call. Then the contrast of her conversation with her father really upped the ante. Even though she put on a bold face to her boss, internally we saw she wasn’t so sure. The contrast balanced each other and it was all in the details.

As for the case itself I appreciated how she tried to run with her premise that this case was linked to the others but kept getting stonewalled by the vice detectives. I thought the fact she “deputized” the witness who didn’t want to narc in order to humor him into being her eyes and ears. Besides bringing him around to her way of thinking, it really added a funny, light moment in a rather serious series. We needed that light moment after the heaviness of the bull room scene. The handling of the child witness also shone as a bright moment of darkness made light. He wanted to kill his mother’s attacker, perfectly reasonable for a child, especially a boy. She understand and didn’t patronize the child.

The boyfriend is probably the best counter point to the stress at the office. Plot and emotion wise a very wise choice. It’s not that she has no conflict there – she showed his ex her rifles in the spirit of honesty she claims, even though we all know the woman was really getting on her nerves. Yet in the end she took them to her father’s as an apology of sorts. In thinking about it you realize she understood that his ex was playing a power game with her boyfriend. So even though it’s not how she wanted to play it she found dirt on them to make her boyfriend happy. On her side of their relationship we found she really needed him as a safe harbor from her work conflicts. Not a long moment at all but without seeing her cry and beg her boyfriend to talk to her even though he’s still mad we would have found their relationship shallow at best. These series of moments, set up as brief details of the bigger picture build this view of their relationship we don’t need to be told about to understand.

The best handled moment of the show stands out to me as her conversation with her nemesis, Detective Reg Duffy, the best friend of the head detective who has just died. It happens at the coffee cart in the cemetery, put there to raise money for the widow. They start off really cordial and polite. She never lets the conversation devolve and lays out her point of view in a strong yet solid way. Duffy sees her point and doesn’t care, even against what his boss has said he maintains his point of view. Both actors used the dialogue to further their characters’ depth.

These moments were all in the details. They built to this picture that held such promise of both conflict and character. You knew it would be all about solving the case but would be done so through relationships and choices. Nothing needed to be told us flat-out, we could deduce the whole through the details.

The problem was the tone so lovingly established by the writers was not maintained through the whole season. At the time, there was criticism that work place discrimination was a thing of the past and the writers announced they would be lightening this aspect of the story as the season progressed.

Back peddling was their first mistake. To reduced the tension between Timoney and her fellow detectives was not the answer. It sapped the entire show of its motivating force and the sympathy the audience had for its protagonist. She became this crabby detective that simply couldn’t work well with others. It went against the tone established in the premiere!

Realizing that male discrimination in the workplace is not as believable as during Helen Mirren’s time, the writers should have brainstormed ways to create other forms of discrimination. The writers themselves already had the seeds of the right idea, they just planted them in the wrong place.

Prime Suspect - Elizabeth Rodrigues

Elizabeth Rodriguez portrayed peer, Detective Carolina Rivera, beloved by every single detective (all male) in their squad (plus past partners with Timoney’s nemesis Reg Duffy). Writers had her come on the show as a detective from a different squad in episode three. Three! (Oh the potential lost…) She really rattles Timoney’s cage, as she uses her sexuality and charm to buddy it up with Timoney’s co-workers. Something Timoney deliberately doesn’t do. Rivera’s effect on Timoney was spot on – workplace rivalry between female peers whose conflict is built around differences in opinion; in just how they should relate to their male peers.

It was a good idea, but there was a better idea. Instead of being a peer, she should have been a superior. Replace Timoney’s very male lieutenant, who rightly treats Timoney fairly in the premiere, with someone who differs with her on how to act and who successfully used those ideas to advance herself. In this way we mimic the 80’s discrimination sensibility with a very real, very modern take.

Women are known to discriminate against other females, even in a world of women support-itude. A very real contest happens in the workplace with women due to an attitude of either you’re with me or against me. Add a heavy dash of ambitiousness and you have a recipe for conflict. Rivera doesn’t even have to really be Timoney’s enemy but only exist as a perception of an enemy, even if she isn’t, simply through their differing views. We are what we believe after all.

The show desperately needed an influx of female blood. In this new age of sexual equality, a call for more women in male dominated careers only makes very real sense.  Near the end of the first season I’d have killed off one or two of the male detectives and brought in one or two female up and comers on the detective front to threaten Timoney in new ways. At heart Timoney is ambitious and yet she doesn’t know how to interact with her peers as equals. This should have been understood by her writers and played up and heightened.

When I look back at the choices I’ve made, moments shine like a beacon and others cringe in seething regret. Everyone has these points in life that we remember as defining you for you. For me some of the most potent moments are those I shared with specific people. It’s their relationship with me that shaped, for good or bad, who I was and hopefully they feel the same about me.

With a character we as writers are shining a bright light on those moments as if they were real people walking about a real life. In shaping our characters we chose details that build up a person who we can see up and about life. We desire to share our visions with our audience, to inspire them with the experiences of our characters. These details must stand on their own and create a vision that everyone can relate to as another human being. No two humans have exactly the same experiences nor do they react the same as every other person in the same circumstances.

Prime Suspect was cancelled, not because it didn’t have potential or great introductions, but because Timoney’s writers didn’t have faith that what made Timoney stand out from the crowd would also endear her to her audience. Everyone who experiences discrimination can relate to the same in others. The audience just had to be shown that Timoney was in her own unique circumstances and like all of us dealing with it the best way she knew how.

Did you watch Prime Suspect? Helen Mirren’s version? Did you enjoy them? Find them a wash? Does discrimination make your blood boil? What do you think of Maria Bello?



1 thought on “Discrimination Works in the Right Tone”

Let's talk in the comments...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s