Who's the most likable pain in the neck on public television?
You'd be right if you guessed Jane Tennison, deputy inspector and star of "Prime Suspect," the boffo detective series starring erstwhile Royal Shakespeare Company ingenue Helen Mirren.
Tennison's career -- as the brilliant and frequently obnoxious female detective who infiltrates the all-male world of the London police -- starts a new chapter with "Prime Suspect 4: The Lost Child" (tomorrow at 9 p.m. on MPT, Channels 22, 67), in a single, two-hour episode.
The story: A kidnapped child's disappearance leads Tennison and crew to a recently paroled pedophile. "Prime Suspect 4" also finds the detective with a promotion -- she's now superintendent inspector -- and a new source of angst.
In the last installment, Tennison discovered she was pregnant. In tomorrow night's show, she terminates the pregnancy but is haunted by it. The "lost child" of the title refers to more than the toddler who disappears in the opening scenes.
What's always been compelling about "Prime Suspect" is its inclination to let us see so much of what propels the detective. Although there's no doubt that the series is selling the tension that comes from Tennison's struggle to hold her own in a male universe, she's too palpable a character to be a mere mouthpiece for feminism. For one thing, she's busy trying to fit an entire existence into the tiny confines of detective work.
Indeed, one of the advantages of the series' postmodern tweaking of detective conventions -- the identity of the villain is always less interesting than the method of ferreting him out -- is that it allows other questions to be asked.
Tomorrow night's episode is no exception. We learn who the kidnapper is (or probably is) long before Tennison's boys are able to collar him.
We meet the psychologist who treated the suspect for child molestation.
And we get to know the unsuspecting girlfriend, herself a mother of two young children. The false leads and bad starts and frustrating angles of the chase all allow for existential rumination.
What does it mean to lose a child? Whose job is it to protect children? And why do those who are supposed to protect so often fail? On this case, our detective finds herself close to the edge. Tennison is still the only female officer in the squad room, so perhaps it's no surprise her reactions to the particulars are so fragile.
As for actress Mirren, who picked up an Oscar nomination (for "The Madness of King George") since her last appearance on the small screen, it's good to have her back and fighting the dearth of roles for women -- middle-aged or otherwise -- who would be in charge.
L Two new "Prime Suspects" are due in February and the spring.