In the mid-’90s, ABC and Steven Bochco, then at the height of his clout within the industry, unleashed a new kind of TV experiment upon the viewers of the world. Called Murder One, it purported to follow a murder case from the discovery of the body through the trial, setting up a variety of suspects and then knocking them down over the course of 22 episodes. Anchored by the great Daniel Benzali as the defense attorney through whose office all of this action rotated, the show was occasionally a mess but was always bold and unique. The central lesson Bochco may have taken away from that season was that 22 episodes was just too much time to stretch a murder mystery over. The first season’s resolution proved highly disappointing, and the show’s second season (sans much of the original cast) ditched the “one case per season” format for three cases in 18 episodes.
Now comes Murder In The First, a new show telling the story of one crime over a season from Bochco (with co-creator Eric Lodal), this one over just 10 episodes. What was bracing in the ’90s, however, has become painfully generic now, when television is loaded down with more case-of-the-season shows than it knows what to do with. (Even things like True Detective and Fargo fall into this rough genre.) For the most part, Murder In The First is just stretching the typical case-of-the-week episode out over an entire season. Whatever twists it offers are so painfully telegraphed that it seems like TNT, the network airing it, wants to make sure no one is ever shocked by anything that happens on the show (which is a murder mystery, where shocking twists are stock-in-trade). There are admirable attempts here and there to return to some of the personal stories and social-issues drama that made Bochco such a necessary figure in the ’80s and ’90s, but they’re indifferently scattered amid the story points that wouldn’t feel out of place on Major Crimes, the show leading into this one on the schedule.
The foremost difference between Murder In The First and Murder One is that the newer series tells its stories through the point of view of the cops investigating the homicide, not the lawyers defending a possible culprit. This immediately erases much of the tension in the earlier show, where Benzali and company really did get to wonder if they were defending a man who had killed a 15-year-old girl. By shifting the focus to the cops, Murder In The First neatly sidesteps moral quandaries, but it also sidesteps anything with real meat to it, anything that might make viewers question the protagonists and their methods. The two central detectives here are played by Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson, and they’re both good with what they’re given—but what they’re given is so generic it could have been handled by almost any actor of their caliber. Even the personal storylines here are bland. Diggs’ character has a wife dying of cancer, while Robertson’s character is going through a divorce and trying to shepherd her daughter through it. Much of the time, the character development on the show feels like it was chosen at random out of a hat.
When it comes to the suspects in the central murder, the show feels even more like a mediocre trace-over of Murder One. Jason Gedrick’s Hollywood playboy on the earlier series is now played by Tom Felton as a tech wunderkind, but the two characters fulfill basically the same function: eager tyros ready to take on the world, masking huge reservoirs of dark emotion. The same goes for actors like Richard Schiff, as the tech genius’ personal counsel, or James Cromwell, as a shark of a defense attorney. It’s fun to watch these actors, particularly Schiff and Cromwell, but they’re playing riffs on other, better characters from earlier shows, some from Bochco himself. (The other major name in the cast is Steven Weber, whose character is mostly murky at this point. Since Felton seems to be set up as Red Herring No. 1, then it’s even money Weber is playing Red Herring No. 2.)
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the cop show, or with stories where brave detectives solve impossible cases over the course of one season, or even one episode per week. But what Bochco understood in the ’80s and ’90s with shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue was that simply the solving of crimes wasn’t enough. To truly matter, a show like this had to dig into the effects those crimes had on the men and women solving them, and the communities those crimes happened in. Shows like this, in other words, need a larger point of view than just “Crime is committed; crime is solved.” It’s here that shows like True Detective and Fargo excel, and it’s here that even the third season of The Killing—with its moving work on the death penalty—managed to have moments of real grace.
Murder In The First, no matter how good the actors, no matter how story turns occasionally perk the interest, fails that very basic test. Making this all the more disappointing is that the show already has a potentially interesting point of view: In the pilot, the detectives are solving one murder, but it’s quickly shoved aside when a pretty, blonde girl is killed. There’s some social commentary to be made there, either implicitly or explicitly, but Murder In The First seems just as taken with this story as whoever the Nancy Grace of this fictional universe inevitably would be. It hasn’t yet realized that what was once groundbreaking is now wheezy and clichéd.
Created by: Steven Bochco and Eric Lodal
Starring: Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson, Nicole Ari Parker, Tom Felton, Steven Weber
Debuts: Monday at 10 p.m. Eastern on TNT
Format: Hour-long serialized crime drama
Three episodes watched for review