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Do not miss Helen Mirren's 'Final Act'

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There are acts you wish would never end.

Given the chance, many of us would gladly watch Helen Mirren play Jane Tennison whenever she was in the mood to do so. Such a perfect marriage of astoundingly talented actress and brilliantly conceived character does not come along every year, or even every decade -- and you have to embrace the rarities when they come your way.

Yet loath though we may be to let go, it seems Mirren and Jane are ready to part company. The only consolation is that they're doing so in fitting high fashion, with the heartbreaking, penetrating crime drama Prime Suspect: The Final Act.

The Detective Superintendent Tennison we see in this Final Act is everything we might have expected and feared she would become.

When writer Lynda La Plante introduced Jane in 1991, she was a breakthrough TV character -- an aggressive, sexual, powerful middle-aged woman at the peak of her abilities in a profession that was trying to marginalize her. Now, just as bravely, Final Act writer Frank Deasy shows us the toll exacted by Jane's dedication to her Scotland Yard career and unwillingness to face her demons.

Alcoholic, alone, facing retirement and the death of her father (Frank Finlay), Jane is a woman on the verge of collapse. "Old school, that's Tennison," pronounces her boss. "Battered, burned-out dinosaurs."

Dinosaur she may be, but Jane is not extinct yet. Her goal now is to go out with a victory -- which means bringing all her skill and intelligence to bear to find the murderer of a 14-year-old London girl.

In Jane's dichotomy, in that split between professional gifts and personal disarray, lies the genius of Mirren's performance. Flashes of anger and self-pity alternate with moments of insight, but nothing is exaggerated and nothing rings false. No vanity ever interferes with her portrayal of Jane's foibles, but neither is dissolution ever overplayed. A look, a gesture; that's all Mirren needs to pull you into Jane's world.

And that world, by the way, looks far more like modern urban America than you may imagine if your view of London has been overly influenced by old books and movies.

Her world does feature a few twists that Americans may find confusing. But overall, Final Act is as relevant to us as it no doubt was to its original British audience.

There is a mystery to be solved, but it's not really much of one, and it's not the show's primary draw. You watch Prime Suspect for the spot-on characters and the first-rate actors, including Tom Bell's touching return as Jane's former nemesis, Bill Otley, and Stephen Tompkinson as the victim's father. And, of course, for Mirren and Jane -- for one final time.

TV will be a lesser place without them.

Prime Suspect: The Final Act

PBS, Sunday, 9 ET/PT (times may vary)

**** out of four

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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