NBC’s two new Thursday shows – Whitney [9:30/8:30C] and Prime Suspect [10/9C] – couldn’t be more different. Whitney, based on the comedy of Whitney Cummings, isn’t even the best show from her this fall [that would be 2 Broke Girls on another network], while Prime Suspect is a decent procedural so loosely adapted from the gritty British series of the same name that its lead character has a new last name – and wears a fedora.
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Whitney Cummings is a very good stand-up comic with material that reminds of Roseanne [except for Whitney being thin, pretty and not as quite as nasty] – satirical looks at middle class life. Her material is, essentially, a subversive assault on all things comfortable and taken for granted by society.
Whitney, the series, is about punch lines and retreaded characters. Its idea of mad humor is Whitney [Whitney Cummings] and her boyfriend Alex [Chris D’Elia] chasing each other with cans of aerosol deodorant.
The couple attends a wedding – after a whole choosing a wardrobe fiasco that’s quite possibly older than I am – and, with their three-year anniversary coming up, makes Whitney insecure about how little the two are having sex. A trip to a marital aids store ensues – hilarity, sadly, does not.
Like most sitcoms, Whitney has a cadre of supporting characters: Mark [Daniel G. O’Brien] is a cop whose crudity stems from his belief that the cavemen had it right; Lily [Zoe Lister-Jones] is a demure seeming food critic who has a competitive streak; Neal [Maulik Pancholy], is so whipped he sets picks for her so can grab the bridal bouquet, and Roxy [Rhea Seehorn] is like Laurie on Cougar Town – a hard partying, have a drink at breakfast girl – only unfunny.
Considering how terrific 2 Broke Girls is, I find it hard to believe that Cummings created or co-created both shows. Whitney is leadenly paced, relies on sex, insecurity and booze for laughs [without actually making them funny], and just generally sucks bad [as Michael Guerin used to say].
Straight up, Whitney is a show I hope I never have to see again.
On the other hand, Prime Suspect may not be the edgy adaptation of the classic British series that starred Helen Mirren, but it’s a solid procedural with the potential to be something even better.
First, let’s look at the differences from the original: the name – the lead is Detective Jane Timoney, not Jane Tennison; Timoney is trying to quit smoking, where Tennison is a chain smoker; Timoney wears a battered fedora that Tennison wouldn’t be caught dead in; the language is considerably toned down, as is the violence [for the most part], though it’s pretty amped for American network television; Prime Suspect US requires cases to be wrapped up more quickly [each the UK show’s seasons revolved around a single case], and where Tennison was a time-ravaged beauty, Timoney is only a bit rough around the edges.
Most of these differences amount to cosmetic changes, or concessions made for American network TV, but the biggest difference is that Timoney [Maria Bello, A History of Violence, Abduction] has a live-in boyfriend and even – Shock! Surprise! – cries on his shoulder when things are especially tough. That would never happen with Tennison and that, by itself, makes this a completely different show [though there are themes that still tie the two together].
Where the shows are alike is having the female lead banging her head against the proverbial glass ceiling and putting up with a lot of sexist crap along the way. Timoney is also a better detective than the men – not because she’s smarter [though she seems to be that, too], but because she’s more open-minded.
The case in the premiere is a rape-murder. Without even considering alternatives, the male detective in charge pins his suspicions on the woman’s neighbor because they’d been seeing each other. He also discounts the possibility that the woman’s children could have any information because they were hiding in the closet.
When he dies of a heart attack, Timoney seizes the opportunity to ask her boss [Aidan Quinn] to let her run the investigation. Despite ticking him off, she gets her shot – and proceeds to secure a new lead – a lead that ties into a series of rapes in the surrounding area.
Alexandra Cunningham’s script has to introduce a regular cast that rivals Lost – eight regulars and a number of potential recurring characters. Besides the case, she adds a child custody sharing problem between Timoney’s boyfriend, Matt Webb [Kenny Johnson, Sons of Anarchy, Saving Grace] and his ex; a boxing match involving the homicide squad’s Detective Eddie Gautier [Joe Nieves, How I Met Your Mother], and an introduction to Timoney’s father, Desmond [Peter Gerety, brothers & sisters, Rubicon].
What’s surprising, given the changes made for network primetime, is that Prime Suspect isn’t actually watered down a lot. It might not be as grisly – or as sexy – as Dexter, or use the language of the original, but it is a pretty dark show. In fact, being limited in terms of language actually inspires the writing to be more inventive – especially when the men on the squad are giving Timoney grief.
It’s too bad that the culprit in the premiere is someone we don’t actually see before he’s revealed as the killer [though that alone is enough to knock the show’s grade a lot], but pretty much everything else kinda works.
The cast includes a number of actors from whom we’ve come to expect great work – Kirk Acevedo [Fringe], Bryan F. O’Byrne [Brotherhood, FlashForward] as the one man who will not yield to the force of nature that is Jane Timoney – and the others I’ve mentioned above and all of whom are very good here.
The premiere was directed by Peter Berg [Friday Night Lights – movie and TV series] and he does a yeoman’s job of juggling all the disparate elements that Cunningham has given him to work with – and making all the parts feel like a unified whole. He also establishes a look that is reminiscent of a number of New York-based procedurals but has an earthier, grittier feel.
In a cast of superb character actors, though, the show will sink or swim on the performance of Maria Bello – and she’s very good, if maybe just a bit too idiosyncratic [the fedora? really?], in the lead.
It may take a while for the show to completely find its feet, but it’s not terrible [which many critics seem to have been expecting]. For my money, it’s in second position behind The Mentalist, and ahead of Private Practice.
Grade: Whitney – D-
Grade: Prime Suspect – B-
Final Grade: C
Photos by Michael Haaseth and Gavin Bond/courtesy NBC