Retro Rewind: Murder One

[Blogged by Jeremy Grayson]

[Law and Chronological Order]

“We’re at war for the hearts and minds of the jury.” – Theodore Hoffman

No matter how busy the television industry gets, churning out hundreds of shows each year in order to capitalize on every possible appeal factor, patterns still pop up. In the last couple of years, for example, we’ve had a craze for season-long mysteries. Look at the sheer amount of anthology or quasi-anthology seasons of television we got in 2014 alone: The Killing, True Detective, Fargo and Murder in the First.

Oh, wait… I forgot. You don’t know what Murder in the First is. It was this series that premiered on USA Network in the summer of 2014, to mostly muted effect. It’s a by-the-numbers serialized mystery story starring Kathleen Robertson and Taye Diggs, one that was overshadowed by the aforementioned Fargos and True Detectives that accompanied it.

Murder in the First was created by Steven Bochco, a man who was once the most acclaimed and successful writer on television. He created shows like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, and played a huge part in crafting the current mold of television as we know it. (It’s a safe bet that most of the best dramas on television today owe something to Bochco’s experimental ideas in serialization and character development.)

Yet when Murder in the First premiered, it wasn’t long-running police shows that critics compared it to. Rather, it was to another series he co-created that aired for only a brief time on ABC in the mid-Nineties – perhaps one of the most overlooked influential series of all time – the remarkable and understated Murder One.

Created by Bochco, along with Channing Gibson and Charles H. Eglee (the latter of whom served as showrunner, years before he brought his talents to The Shield), Murder One tells the story of a high-profile legal case in which a steely, determined lawyer and his team of educated associates must defend a young celebrity who’s been accused of murder. The show is said to have been inspired by the OJ Simpson trial which was eating up all the media coverage at the time (though Bochco claims the idea was conceived before those real-life events transpired) but audiences who tuned in found more than a series capitalizing on current events.

Let’s talk serialization. Bochco had already made the concept of serialized television palpable in the Eighties with the aforementioned Hill Street Blues, as well as LA Law, and even years before Murder One, many others followed his example… to an extent. Wiseguy, from veteran TV producer Stephen J. Cannell, featured one serialized arc after another, but kept them in small chunks, dividing each season into three or four successive storylines. Twin Peaks remains one of the most heavily serialized shows ever, but it was very much an ongoing project with no ending mapped out from the start.

Murder One tells one single, continuing story throughout its 23-episode first season. So novelized is its storytelling pattern, in fact, that episodes are not given titles, but rather labeled as “Chapters”. By the time all 23 chapters are through, you’ve witnessed a complete, cohesive story from start to finish, with no important plot threads left dangling.

With its shades of influence on the current crop of mystery shows (as well as Veronica Mars and 24), Murder One already has a sizable deal of credibility. Yet that’s only the tip of the show’s meritorious iceberg. Although the plot of the series is given a great deal of focus (and trust me, it’s an incredibly engrossing, surprising, and twisty plot) it’s the characters where Murder One really shines.

Start with our protagonist: Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali), criminal attorney-at-law. In the pre-Tony Soprano age, networks were fearful of making the protagonists of their shows too immoral, at the risk of putting off their audiences. But Bochco had already crafted a hard-edged yet still likable hero in NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz, and he set out to do so again, creating a lawyer who, at heart, championed justice, yet wasn’t above using excessive force and intimidation to acquire it. Hoffman had enough of a sympathetic side to put the network at ease – his relationship with his wife and daughter paint him as a good-hearted family man, even if he doesn’t show it in his work life – though they probably weren’t thrilled by the scene where he interrogates a teenage girl on the witness stand and leaves her in tears.

Hoffman helms a team of associates – Arnold (JC Mackenzie), Justine (Mary McCormack), Chris (Michael Hayden), and Lisa (Grace Phillips) – in aiding an arrogant young Hollywood actor named Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) who is accused of murdering a young woman. In his investigation, Hoffman targets Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), a suave philanthropist with whom he shares a history. The season’s core conflict is derived from the antagonistic relationship between Hoffman and Cross, as each one tries to outmaneuver the other. Several side characters get compelling arcs – Neil and Justine in particular – and the plot takes several unexpected twists before the season finale reveals the identity of the real murderer.

As a mystery novel, Murder One works very well – but that’s not the only level it succeeds. In addition to just being an engrossing story, it serves as the most in-depth and intriguing look at the American legal system as has ever been put to television. The season follows the trial process from start to finish (an entire episode is devoted to the process of jury selection, and the uncomfortable lack of objectivity that accompanies it), and with incredible accuracy. There are themes about the media, and how its introspective yet exploitative role serves to both enhance and hinder the judicial process (another crucial aspect of the OJ Simpson trial, which reached its widely-televised verdict just two weeks after the series premiered.)

Even in the midst of its extensive analysis of the judicial system and the troubles built into its genetic system, Murder One finds time for occasional dabs of social policy. In the character of Louis Hines (John Fleck), the series introduced one of the first gay primetime TV characters who was not predominantly defined by his sexuality. Other shows around the same time (My So-Called Life and The Larry Sanders Show among them) had featured a homosexual character in their main cast, but they were too obviously modeled off of gay stereotypes, even as they were developed well along with the rest of the cast. On Murder One, Hines’ romantic preferences are only rarely mentioned, and are just brought to the forefront once all season. It’s one of many signs that the series was very comfortable with its characters, just as it was with its often dark and unnatural storylines.

It helped overall that the cast featured many standout performances. As Hoffman, Benzali channeled cold, stoic resolve in the courtroom and a warm, fatherly presence in his home life. Tucci’s villainous performance as Cross is unnervingly creepy, and his character leaves us constantly guessing as to his true motivations – he even received a well-deserved Emmy nomination for his role. Of the four associates, Mary McCormack gives the most memorable performance (admittedly, it probably helps that I liked her on The West Wing) as later episodes of the season push her character down a progressively darker path, although JC Mackenzie (the love-to-hate Normal on Dark Angel) also supplies some great moments. The supporting cast, which includes Dylan Baker, Kevin Tighe, Patricia Clarkson, and Adam Scott, ingrain the series with a sense of dramatic realism that will keep you rooted to the screen. Even down to its minor roles – including a pre-Breaking Bad Dean Norris and Anna Gunn, as well as a clean-shaven Richard Schiff – the show has no shortage of great casting.

Assembling all these ingredients into a single package, and topping them off with some epic theme music by Mike Post, and it’s easy to understand why the show was such a hit with critics. (The season scores a whopping 99 on Metacritic, a near-unrivaled feat.) Unfortunately, even the most heartfelt of praise couldn’t help the show’s ratings. ABC scheduled the series opposite ER, which went on to score 21 million viewers a week during the 1995-96 season, and roundly beat the stuffing out of its competition. Thanks a lot, George Clooney.

ABC retooled the show for its second season to make the series more accessible, and… well, if you couldn’t guess it from the first half of that sentence, the show’s quality took a dive. Viewers who tuned in during the fall of 1996 found a slicker, faster season, one not devoted to a single arc, but to three individual mini-arcs. Half the cast had been replaced, including Benzali, whose role was now filled by a fast-and-loose defense attorney played by Anthony LaPaglia. (I’m not entirely sure what it is I have against Anthony LaPaglia. It might be the fact that I hated him as Daphne’s alcoholic brother on Frasier.) On the minor plus side, though, it also featured DB Woodside (Principal Wood from Buffy) in his first acting role.

Technically, that second season, with its less engrossing and more simplistic storytelling, brings down the overall quality of Murder One. But I tend to look at the first season in isolation – it’s a single, open-and-shut story, one that doesn’t need any sequels or addendums. Even taking into account the first season’s flaws (early episodes attempting to shoehorn a “Case of the week” story into the proceedings, a secret romance between two of the legal associates that leads nowhere), it’s still a remarkable piece of television for the mid-1990s.

Which, of course, leads us to the final point. When I wrote about My So-Called Life and Homicide, I pointed that although two decades had passed since their respective heydays, the shows still held up surprisingly well. So how well, you may ask, does Murder One stand the test of time?

The answer: Not only does Murder One hold up well, it is actually better now than it was in 1995.

Sure, the technology on the series feels pretty dated. (VHS tapes, anyone?) But this is one of the rare instances when a show that could be described as “ahead of its time” could justifiably be said to have found said time. Twenty years ago, this series was about as fish-out-of-water as they come. But nowadays, when video streaming has made binge-watching a regular tradition, and when miniseries have become a highly commoditized mode of TV storytelling, Murder One becomes much more eminently watchable. It’s a novel, to be sure, one worth consuming several chapters at a time – and now is the best time to do it.

Moreover, the show’s themes are more relevant now than ever. Although the OJ Simpson trial is a thing of the distant past, the questions it brought up which Murder One explores – about the exploitation of high-profile events and the way the public responds to voyeurism – have become even more prominent in the age of social media. Murder One may make no mention of Twitter or Instagram, but its messages are alarmingly reflective in the face of modern technology.

And speaking of modern technology, the entire series is currently streaming for free on Hulu. Take the episodes one at a time, or binge the whole thing over a rainy weekend. Either way, the first season of Murder One is one of the very best television seasons of the 1990s, and whether you like legal dramas or not, you owe it to yourself to give it a shot.

Jeremy Grayson is a freelance writer and reviewer for Critically Touched. He spends his spare time coming up with humorous bylines.


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