“Prime Suspect: Tennison”
(PBS at 10 p.m., Sunday, June 25) Before she was the Jane Tennison (the ace inspector played by Helen Mirren in one of public TV’s best series), Jane Tennison was just a 22-year-old rookie “WPC” (woman police constable) in London’s Hackney borough in 1973, assigned to radio-dispatch duties until her preternatural instincts for detective work begin to impress her dismissively sexist male co-workers.
This three-episode “Prime Suspect” prequel, co-written by Lynda La Plante (who wrote the original series) and airing in the United States under PBS’s “Masterpiece” banner, is a well-paced, beautifully made and intelligent look back at young Tennison’s career — and easily one of the best shows you’ll find on TV this summer.
Not long on the job, Tennison (Stefanie Martini) assists in investigating the murder of a young woman who fell into drugs and prostitution. Tennison’s distractingly handsome superior, Detective Inspector Len Bradfield (Sam Reid), notices that she is finding more leads in the case than the rest of his staff, so he begins inviting her along to the coroner’s autopsy, suspect interviews and the grieving home of the victim’s family — and it’s here our heroine begins to realize a lifelong obsession (and that she’s falling in love with her boss). She also gets her first experience with the unseemly side of the thin blue line, when a colleague uses excessive force while apprehending a suspect and Tennison is asked to lie in his defense.
Viewers will notice how skillfully “Prime Suspect: Tennison” reflects modern issues — such as workplace gender equity and police brutality — within a story that’s set 44 years ago. It has a subtle but effective sense of relevance that so many post-“Mad Men” dramas set in the ’70s and ’80s attempt but so often fumble. Grade: A-
(FX at 10 p.m., Wednesday, July 5) The hook in this broadly conceived, thoroughly compelling Los Angeles crime epic is simple enough: It’s about the birth of crack cocaine, set in the summer of 1983. (Yes, the 1980s seem to be on Hollywood’s mind a lot these days, particularly on TV. It’ll pass; soon enough, all the shows will feature meticulously nostalgic period pieces set in the 1990s.)
Created by John Singleton with Eric Amadio and Dave Andron, “Snowfall” opens with a rainbow-flavored burst of happiness in the relative calm of pre-crack South Central, where the ambitions of a straight-A student and casual marijuana dealer named Franklin Saint (Damson Idris) collide with a surplus of high-grade cocaine in the Hollywood Hills.
Through a series of events, Franklin starts selling spare kilos for a powerful supplier, Avi Drexler (Alon Moni Aboutboul). It’s an enticing opportunity that is infinitely more dangerous, as Franklin’s story begins to intersect with a contentious meltdown inside a Mexican American crime family, as well as the plans of a deep-undercover CIA agent, Teddy McDonald (Carter Hudson), to funnel cocaine profits to Nicaraguan contras. As the story moves forward, viewers will see how cocaine got reformulated and remarketed as crack.
Complicated? Yes, but once again an FX series artfully demonstrates the narrative discipline it takes to launch a story with multiple characters and perspectives — from a working mom (Michael Hyatt) who must enforce a slumlord’s power over impoverished tenants to a melancholy Mexican wrestler (Sergio Peris-Mencheta) seeking to improve his outlook by joining a cartel — and accomplish it with the structural nuisance of commercial breaks. “Snowfall” is lean, mean and precise. Though it fictionalizes and chronicles a depressing (and violent) American crisis, it belongs on everyone’s must-watch list this summer. Grade: A-
(TNT at 9 p.m., Monday, July 10) Keep this show away from any Shakespeare scholars who might be in an eye-gouging mood (as well as any remaining fans of 1998’s rom-com “Shakespeare in Love”). For the rest of us, there’s plenty of harmless charm and cheap thrills in this drama about 24-year-old Will Shakespeare (Laurie Davidson), who leaves his wife and three children in Stratford and travels to a 16th-century London that resembles a cross between a syphilitic cesspool and a radiant remake of all of Adam Ant’s music videos.
Pop oldies and current hits blare in the background as Will tries to write a play entertaining enough to impress James Burbage (Colm Meaney), the proprietor of a certain 3,000-seat theater that is destined to make history. For now, it’s merely a failing enterprise, with rowdy audiences of groundlings who’d rather mosh than be moved by the spoken word.
As its central conflict, “Will” grasps at the idea that Shakespeare was a closet Catholic riddled with guilt whose task (besides becoming history’s greatest playwright) is to aid his cousin, Robert Southwell (Max Bennett), a renegade priest who is hiding from Queen Elizabeth’s cruel Protestant enforcer, Richard Topcliffe (Ewen Bremner), and hopes to stir the masses with a perfect epistle and an illicit printing press.
That angle just isn’t as enticing as the theatrical shenanigans and poverty-level desperation that gives “Will” a bawdy and often joyfully punkish sense of community. Davidson makes for a dashing, dedicated Bard, while Olivia DeJonge, as Burbage’s daughter, Alice, plays a muse who isn’t merely content to inspire. She’s a writer, too, and together, she and Will try to crack the code for successful storytelling. Grade: B
(Acorn TV streaming, Monday, June 19) If you have a bottomless appetite for crime procedurals set in breathtakingly pretty (and gloomy) U.K. climes, then you should already be an Acorn TV subscriber, where there’s a healthy supply of imported, frosty, connect-the-dots dramas about detective inspectors, barristers and constables trying to sort through entire villages’ worth of suspects.
“Loch Ness,” fresh off its ITV premiere across the pond, hews strictly to the formula seen in “Broadchurch” and other knockoffs, but this six-episode series meets most of the requirements to keep a viewer hooked. (I can save you time if you were hoping for something a tad supernatural from a series called “Loch Ness”: There’s no cameo appearance from the mythic Nessie creature.)
Laura Fraser (“Breaking Bad”) stars as Annie Redford, an inspector in a small town on the shores of Scotland’s enigmatic lake, where the local piano teacher has turned up dead on a hiking trail. To make matters worse, a teenage prank gone wrong has uncovered a squishy human heart with no body — and, no, it doesn’t belong the piano teacher. Siobhan Finneran (“Downton Abbey’s” Miss O’Brien) co-stars as a brusque higher ranking officer who swoops into town to oversee a dual investigation that, through a series of too many twists and turns, becomes a hunt for a serial killer as the body count rises.
As Annie grows more confident in her sleuthing skills viewers get to meet all of the town’s shifty locals and decide if their alibis hold water — as usual, the killer might be uncomfortably close to the investigation. You’ll probably figure out the ending to “Loch Ness” well before the fog lifts, but my hunch is you’re here mainly for the luscious scenery. Grade: B-
(Spike at 10 p.m., Thursday, June 22) Stephen King’s 1980 novella about a strange fog that rolls into a small town (providing a shrouded habitat for bloodthirsty creatures) has already been tried on the movie screen in a 2007 adaptation, but creator Christian Torpe has some new ideas meant to turn the story into a 10-episode “Walking Dead”-type survival of the fittest. A more apt comparison might be “Under the Dome,” the convoluted CBS summertime series a few years back that was also derived from King’s overstock of horror/supernatural tales that function as thinly disguised social studies of community dynamics in the face of terror.
This “Mist” opens on a surprisingly intense setup, as a 16-year-old girl, Alex Copeland (Gus Birney), tells her parents that she was raped by Bridgeville High School’s star football player (Luke Cosgrove) at a postgame house party. Alex’s distraught mother, Eve (Alyssa Sutherland), is furious at her husband, Kevin (Morgan Spector), for letting Alex go to the party in the first place.
But before things can get too “13 Reasons Why,” the dreaded mist rolls in (not a moment too soon) and the bloodshed begins. The Copeland family is predictably separated — Kevin is still at the police station while Eve and Alex are trapped inside the town’s shopping mall — and it isn’t long before everyone is playing deeply to their assigned archetypes, in which the tough-talkers among them might as well be wearing USDA beef stickers on their foreheads. Standouts include Frances Conroy (“Six Feet Under”) as the town’s matronly conspiracy theorist. The pilot episode doesn’t inspire hopes that Torpe can handle a nuanced mix of horror and metaphorical context, but that’s okay — sometimes summer calls only for a simple order of mildly entertaining gore. Grade: C+
“The Last Tycoon”
(Amazon streaming, Friday, July 28) Hollywood will never break the habit of playing 1930s dress-up, but if you’re going to succumb to that temptation, it couldn’t hurt to return once more to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished but alluring 1941 novel about an internal power struggle at a movie studio.
The pilot episode of this series adaptation from writer/director Billy Ray (“Shattered Glass”) has been available to Amazon subscribers since last summer, and enough of them liked it for Amazon to push forward into a full nine-episode season even though “The Last Tycoon” has pretty much always felt like a movie — the novel doesn’t even top 200 pages. (At best, it could be padded out to a miniseries.) Even if you set all that aside (as well as Elia Kazan’s 1976 film version with Robert De Niro, which flopped), a stiff fussiness bogs down the first hour, which is drenched in ’30s luxury, perfect light and gorgeous costumes, but not much else.
Matt Bomer (“White Collar”) plays Monroe Stahr, a rising executive at Brady-American Pictures and producer of a big-budget biopic about his late wife, Minna Davis (Jessica De Gouw), a legendary silent-film star who perished in a house fire. The production runs into trouble as studio boss Pat Brady (the reliably gaseous Kelsey Grammer) capitulates to censorship from an important foreign distributor — Nazi-controlled Germany. A livid Monroe forges ahead with other ideas and Pat feels threatened, especially when Monroe gives his daughter, Celia Brady (Lily Collins), a chance at a production deal.
Ray and his cast fling themselves wholeheartedly into the spirit and tone of “The Last Tycoon,” but the material shows its age — melodramatic and sometimes downright campy. Fitzgerald might be the first to admit that the story hasn’t exactly held up. Grade: C-
(Disclosure: Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)