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PROCEDURALS PLAY BETTER WHEN THEY'RE BRITISH.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

IN THE PAST decade, Hollywood has perfected the crime procedural. There's a compelling reason the genre dominates the prime-time schedule: Most of them are competent - and many of them much better than that. But two British productions debuting tonight prove Hollywood can still learn a thing or two from its overseas competition.

``Masterpiece Theatre'' premieres the latest in the ``Prime Suspect'' series starring Helen Mirren as beleaguered but unbending Inspector Jane Tennison. The four-hour miniseries, ``Prime Suspect 6: The Last Witness,'' is a typically sober and bracing affair, pitting Tennison against the Balkan mafia and even, it seems, her own government. When a young Bosnian Muslim woman is found tortured and murdered, the autopsy reveals that the victim had been similarly tortured years ago.

Tennison hip-checks the young investigating officer (Ben Miles) and takes over the case, locating the victim's sister (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), who hesitantly reveals that together they barely survived a massacre by Serbs years earlier in Bosnia. A suspect (Velibor Topic) is found, but Tennison is likewise wary of his interpreter, a slick optician (Oleg Menshikov).

Meanwhile, Tennison must also contend with pressures from her superiors that it is time for her to retire; her unit's apparent inability to protect witnesses only reinforces that notion. On the other hand, if she continues to take her investigation in unpopular directions, retirement might be the coziest of her options. And the case gets progressively ugly.

Peter Berry's smartly detailed script is rendered in gritty fashion by director Tom Hooper, and the cast is uniformly excellent. Mirren, in a role that has won her a sizable cult of admirers, capably exudes both urgency and world-weariness; though the actress is reluctant to be typecast by this character and delayed this installment for years, this will have fans wanting more. Certainly there are far worse characters with which to define one's career.

More viscerally eye-popping and addictive, if just by a hair, is BBC America's new limited series ``State of Play,'' a conspiracy thriller written with great aplomb and keen wit by Paul Abbott that was hailed overseas as England's answer to ``24.'' Since it merely spans a brisk and breathless six hours, however, ``State of Play'' doesn't get mired in the sort of ludicrous subplots that exasperate even ``24's'' most ardent fans.

The series opens explosively, with two seemingly unconnected deaths: A suspected drug dealer's brains are spattered against the wall of an alley by an unknown assailant (a witness is shot off his motorbike as well), while the researcher for a rising member of Parliament is ground under a train in London's Tube, an apparent suicide.

When Stephen Collins (David Morrissey) - the researcher's boss and chairman of the Energy Select Committee, not to be confused with the star of the WB's ``Seventh Heaven'' - reacts to her death with unbridled emotion, the local media goes full-metal tabloid, construing an affair between the two. Of course, the truth is far messier than that, a sordid variation on the Chandra Levy story that riveted the attentions of Americans a few years back.

At the offices of the Herald, tart, epigrammatic editor Cameron Foster (Bill Nighy, who also stole the show as an aging, blinkered rocker in the otherwise facile ``Love Actually'') assigns two reporters to the story - Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), who worked with and befriended Collins in their distant pasts, and Della Smith (Kelly Macdonald), who coquettishly wheedles information out of the police, who struggle to keep their investigation in front of the newspaper's. Cal comes upon evidence disturbingly linking the murder with the suicide, which begins to look a lot less like a suicide. Meanwhile, the energy secretary (James Laurenson) resolutely insists that the government stand behind Collins.

Every episode of ``State of Play'' concludes with an irresistible cliffhanger - viewers may find themselves begrudging the full week awaiting them between episodes - and, led by Nighy and Morrissey, offers a showcase for fine, nuanced acting. Sure, one may have a couple of quibbles, notably with Cal's relationship with Collins' estranged wife Anne (Polly Walker), which strains credibility - come on, does anyone think a lowly, pasty journalist could inveigle some heat from a politician's attractive wife? And the story line's convoluted mechanics, almost as clever as anything Rube Goldberg ever devised, perhaps wring out one too many plot twists.

Nonetheless, ``State of Play'' is exemplary entertainment that's both piercingly intelligent and wildly satisfying. It brazenly defies you to find something better to watch anywhere, no matter how many channels your cable or satellite service may boast.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638 david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

PRIME SUSPECT 6: THE LAST WITNESS - Three and one half stars

What: Helen Mirren returns as Inspector Jane Tennison, attempting to prove she hasn't lost her investigative touch as she probes the murder of a Bosnian Muslim woman in a new ``Masterpiece Theatre'' mystery.

Where: KCET.

When: 9 tonight and April 25. Part one repeats at 9 p.m. May 2 and 16; part two repeats at 9 p.m. May 9 and 23.

In a nutshell: Grim, sobering and absorbing, with Mirren turning in another performance of understated bravura.

STATE OF PLAY - Four stars

What: Reporters and the police attempt to exploit and circumnavigate one another as they investigate murders that may be part of a political scandal.

Where: BBC America.

When: 9 tonight and each Sunday through May 23. Repeats of the previous episode will be shown at 8 p.m. Sundays before each new episode.

In a nutshell: Writer Paul Abbott turns in a riveting, suspenseful drama filled with twists.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1) A dead body throws together two former political allies - one a member of Parliament (David Morrissey, left), the other now a reporter (John Simm) in ``State of Play.''

(2) Helen Mirren's Inspector Jane Tennison faces pressure to retire in ``Prime Suspect 6.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Apr 18, 2004
Words:977
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