Tennison, anyone? Helen Mirren has portrayed persistent British detective Jane Tennison on “Prime Suspect” for years now, in a series of miniseries and telemovies imported by PBS currently airing on “Masterpiece Theatre,” previously seen on “Mystery!” She keeps coming back to the role, and viewers eagerly follow. They know, as does she, that this sort of role doesn’t come along very often. In fact, Jane Tennison is the most complex recurring female character on television right now, and Mirren enriches the experience by providing the very best acting. No other TV character or actress even comes close. That said, I have to add that last season’s series of telemovies, offering stand-alone dramas instead of the usual lengthy miniseries, did not offer the same stratospheric level of involvement. The best thing about “Prime Suspect,” other than Mirren, has always been the pace and depth. In the longer stories, we got to know all the characters deeply, often well enough to be shocked by them. I’m thrilled to report, therefore, that “Prime Suspect 5: Errors of Judgment,” returns to the long-form genre (the first two hours air Sunday, the concluding two a week later), and returns with a definite and defiant sense of how to best use the time (WNET Ch. 13, 9 p.m.). Writer Guy Andrews and director Phil Davis set the stage with all deliberate lack of speed.
The first scene shows Detective Superintendent Tennison, recently transferred from London to Manches ter, giving a public-service lecture to a classroom of disinterested youngsters. The regional accents are tough even for Tennison to crack at first, and the invisible wall between her and the kids seemingly impenetrable. They hate it. As we soon find out, so does she. That dispiriting start, however, sets the stage for a slow but steady shift in momentum. After weeks of being relegated to such low-level, Tennison and her new team finally get a homicide to solve. One thing leads to another, and one murder leads to another and by the second half of “Prime Suspect 5,” the tension is so thick, and the pace so quick, it hardly seems like the same drama. But it is, and watching Mirren embody Tennison is one of the biggest joys a true TV fan can experience. Every slight, whether real or perceived, shows up on her face. She can convey an imposing self-reliance, then shift without warning into a completely different gear. At one point in this mini-series, she impulsively reaches out and gives a colleague a passionate, almost desperate, kiss a move that, from a character so well-defined and usually repressed, is a surprise stunner. In this must-see miniseries, it’s only one of many wonderful moments and characterizations. There is violence that’s involving enough to make you wince, and levels of mystery and suspicion so thick you could cut them with a knife. While you’re at it, bring a fork and spoon as welL At four fantastic hours, “Prime Suspect 5” is a very full meal. And most satisfying.