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New fall season: NBC's Prime Suspect is an applause-worthy encore

Hats off to Maria Bello in the new Prime Suspect. NBC photos

Premiering: Thursday, Sept. 22nd at 9 p.m. (central) on NBC
Starring: Maria Bello, Aidan Quinn, Brian F. O'Byrne, Tim Griffin, Kirk Acevedo, Damon Gupton, Peter Gerety
Produced by: Peter Berg, Alexandra Gillespie, Sarah Aubrey, Julie Meldal-Johnson, Paul Buccieri, Lynda LaPlante, John McNamara, Kenny Johnson

How dare they try to do a new Prime Suspect series without Helen Mirren as put-upon, hard-boiled London detective Jane Tennison.

Well, NBC has taken that dare and done a very decent job of it in a Manhattan-based version starring Pennsylvanian Maria Bello as tough-minded detective Jane Timoney.

Renaming her a bit doesn't seem all that necessary. Not that it's of any capital concern once Bello gets rolling. She's convincingly ambitious and resilient from the start, when her biggest adversary is the cigarette-smoking she's just given up.

We first see her jogging, coughing, spitting and chewing nicotine gum before having a set-to with a recalcitrant cab driver. Then it's on to the featured crime scene, which is thoroughly and graphically blood-soaked.

And of course the victim is a woman because research tells the networks that viewers will be more "invested" in catching the perpetrator if his prey is considered more vulnerable or sympathetic. Unfortunately, the number of women murdered in the name of various crime shows -- added to the number of little girls kidnapped -- has long ago over-stepped the boundaries of exploitation. Whatever the overall quality of Prime Suspect, it's same old/same old in that respect. The depictions of the corpses, as well as the descriptions of what's been done to them, should also be cause for concern. Unfortunately, though, there's no statute of limitations on this.

Back at the Prime Suspect cop shop, the resident boys club still considers Timoney the enemy. Rumors that she slept her way into a transfer have prompted some of the animosity. It still seems at least a little over-played, though, even if Timoney has an ally in Lt. Kevin Sweeney (solid work by Aidan Quinn). He's the department boss, trying to exercise a firm hand while also allowing his personal office to be an ad hoc bar where the men drink jumbo shots of straight liquor from cartoon-emblazoned jelly jars.

Timoney finds herself running in place until one of these guys drops dead from a heart attack. She brazenly lobbies for his cases and pisses Sweeney off before he gives them to her.

The opening episode has been re-worked to all but eliminate a side case involving a woman thrown from the top of a 152-story building. Timoney instead turns her energies toward solving the serial rapist case. She sometimes wears a smallish fedora while on the street in her police uniform. From this perspective it's an odd distraction. But Kojak had his lollipops and Columbo his rumpled raincoat. So we'll see.

Timoney also lives with a guy named Matt (Kenny Johnson) and has time to visit her supportive pop, Desmond (Peter Gerety). The denouement in Thursday's opening episode leaves her strikingly bloodied for a woman detective. Her first question of a fellow cop: "Do you have a cigarette?"

Co-executive producer Peter Berg brought Friday Night Lights to the small-screen, so he's not afraid of TV adaptations. His drama series invariably look "authentic." And Prime Suspect is studiously gritty.

Bello's performance is the prime reason to watch, though. She's got the chops to succeed Mirren, even if she never surpasses her. The best new crime drama of the fall season doesn't necessarily have to be an original idea. It just has to have the right people in place.