TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our TV critic David Bianculli has reviews of two TV series premiering this week. Both of them are period pieces, one set in the 1970s, the other in the 1980s. And both are created by and starring women. But past that, the two new shows have little in common except that David likes them both.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: One new show premiering this week on Sunday on the PBS Masterpiece series actually is a miniseries and a prequel. It's also the starting point for a possible series of mystery stories featuring the same character. Beginning in 1991, Helen Mirren starred as police detective Jane Tennison in a series of British mysteries called "Prime Suspect" based on novels written by Lynda La Plante and imported by PBS. Mirren was wonderful. These were the performances more than anything else that made her Helen Mirren. And so were the mysteries, which were about much more than the crime she solved and the suspects she so skillfully interrogated.
The "Prime Suspect" stories also were about the chauvinistic treatment her Jane Tennison had to overcome in the station house and on the case and about her own personal demons as well. "Prime Suspect: Tennison," this new series, also is based on a novel by Lynda La Plante, so it knows what it's doing and where it's going.
This TV show throws us back to the character's first days on the force. In England, It was titled "Prime Suspect 1973." Jane was 22 then and is played by Stefanie Martini, a young actress given the almost impossible task of trying to act as magnetically as Helen Mirren. Imagine a young actor given the job of approximating Peter Falk in young "Columbo." But she does a good job here being buffeted around by colleagues while enduring slights and fighting for slow but steady chances for advancement. She's always observing, questioning and learning. And sometimes, as when being driven by a superior officer to the home of a young murder victim's possible next of kin, she finds an ally. Sam Reid plays her boss, Detective Inspector Bradfield.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIME SUSPECT: TENNISON")
STEFANIE MARTINI: (As Jane Tennison) Can I ask, sir - when we get there, I know what your role is but once we're inside, if the mother cries, do I comfort her? How would I do that? Sorry if I'm asking too many questions.
SAM REID: (As Len Bradfield) No. Just do what feels natural. Grab that envelope from the backseat.
MARTINI: (As Jane Tennison) You want me to show this to the family?
REID: (As Len Bradfield) No. When I give you the nod, just compare it with any family photographs you see but be discreet. So what part of London are you from?
MARTINI: (As Jane Tennison) Maida Vale, sir.
REID: (As Len Bradfield) And what brings a Maida Vale girl to the police?
MARTINI: (As Jane Tennison) I thought the force could do with more posh sorts, so.
REID: (As Len Bradfield, laughing) Fair enough. You shouldn't apologize for asking questions. It's the only way you're going to become a better cop.
BIANCULLI: In this first of what is bound to be a series of Tennison sequels, one murder leads to another, then to a bank robbery as well as to plot details that explain, for example, why Tennison has issues trusting men and when and how she developed her taste for alcohol. The leading performance by Martini is effective, but it's the back story of the character that makes this prequel most compelling of all.
And then there's "GLOW," the 10-episode first season of which premieres Friday on Netflix. It stars Alison Brie, who was such a standout as Pete Campbell's wife Trudy on AMCs "Mad Men" and sweet Annie on NBC's "Community." Here, she plays Ruth, a struggling actress who in 1980s Los Angeles attends an audition for a proposed TV show called "The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling."
Running things is a washed up B-movie director named Sam played by Marc Maron, who's hilarious. Think of him as the Tom Hanks character in "A League Of Their Own." Except here, it's not women baseball players he's trying to coach, it's lady wrestlers who at the auditions, like Alison Brie's Ruth, have never even wrestled before.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLOW")
MARC MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) So what are you, like, a real actor?
ALISON BRIE: (As Ruth) Yeah. I've done a bunch of plays in Omaha at a little spot called the Blue Barn Theater. I did a film a few years back. I've also done extensive mask work and clowning workshops. How much acting will there be on this show?
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) As opposed to what?
BRIE: (As Ruth) Hair pulling.
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) You don't like wrestling?
BRIE: (As Ruth) Well, I don't really know wrestling.
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) You don't think wrestling is acting?
BRIE: (As Ruth) It's not, is it? It's more like a sport with costumes. Or - I'm sorry. Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we the wrestlers?
MARON: (As Sam Sylvia) Yes.
BIANCULLI: The characters and storylines in "GLOW" are fictional, but they're based on an actual TV series which ran from 1986 to 1989. In Netflix's "GLOW," the women embody such fictional cartoonish alter ego wrestling characters as Sheila the She Wolf and The Welfare Queen. But on the real TV show in the '80s, the wrestling ladies included Big Bad Mama and Colonel Ninotchka.
Netflix's "GLOW" is co-created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch from Showtime's "Nurse Jackie." Mensch also wrote and produced for Jenji Kohan's Netflix series "Orange Is The New Black." And Kohan is an executive producer here as well. And while "GLOW" starts as an all-out comedy, it sneaks up on you. Before the 10 episodes are over, you'll be taking the characters and their relationships and problems very seriously.
And there are other acting standouts, including Betty Gilpin from both "Nurse Jackie" and "Masters Of Sex" as a former soap opera star desperate enough to try to become a wrestling star instead. In "GLOW," as in "Prime Suspect: Tennison," women have it tough and have to make some tough choices to fight and survive and advance, whether they're wrestling with their demons or just wrestling.
GROSS: David Bianculli teaches TV and film history at Rowan University. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.