Ten-time Emmy winner Steven Bochco returns to primetime in his wheelhouse – the cop/courtroom drama – with Murder in the First, an uneven but promising new series premiering Monday night on TNT.
The iconoclastic writer and producer could use a hit right now. Since his groundbreaking NYPD Blue ended its ABC run after 12 seasons in 2005, he’s had two ratings failures. The excellent Geena Davis political drama Commander in Chief (ABC, 2005-06) lasted only a single season, while the quirky legal dramedy Raising the Bar eked out a 2008-09 two-season run on TNT.
Murder in the First borrows the same basic format as Bochco’s 1995-97 ABC courtroom drama Murder One, in that it follows a single case over the course of this 10-episode season. What seemed revolutionary in 1995, however, now seems commonplace. In fact, given Bochco’s career-long reputation as an artistic maverick, the most surprising thing about Murder in the First is how unsurprising it is.
Taye Diggs (Private Practice) and Kathleen Robertson (Bates Motel) star as San Francisco Police detectives Terry English and Hildy Mulligan, respectively, who are investigating two seemingly unrelated murders in the premiere episode. One involves a junkie shot to death in his seedy flophouse apartment. The other victim is a beautiful (and very nude) blonde found dead at the bottom of a staircase inside her home.
In short order, however, Terry and Hildy discover that both victims had intimate ties to an unlikely but high-profile suspect: Silicon Valley boy wonder Erich Blunt (Tom Felton from the Harry Potter movie series), whose technical wizardry has transformed him into the world’s youngest billionaire.
Erich’s initial arrogance when confronted by the detectives starts to crumble as compelling circumstantial evidence against him begins piling up, so he hires super-attorney Warren Daniels (Emmy winner James Cromwell, American Horror Story: Asylum) to represent him in court.
If Erich is the prime suspect, however, Terry and Hildy find another person of interest in Bill Wilkerson (Steven Weber, Wings), Erich’s driver and pilot, who also had had a sexual relationship with the dead woman.
TNT sent the first three episodes of Murder in the First for review, which was a smart move, because Monday’s episode is not especially compelling. In the span of a single hour, the premiere tries to introduce a staggering number of characters as well as laying out the basic details of the two murders. Concurrently, a secondary storyline shows Diggs’ character coming apart under the strain of caring for her terminally ill wife (Anne-Marie Johnson, In the Heat of the Night), a tedious subplot that only serves to distract us from the central mystery.
Robertson is terrific as Hildy, a single mom who is smart, focused and given to wisecracks. Diggs is fine, but his character’s personal story feels arbitrary and grafted on.
Based on the three episodes of Murder in the First I’ve seen, it’s Felton who turns in the most galvanizing performance. Now 26, the British actor spent most of his teen years playing nasty Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, but he has matured into a confident grown-up actor who skillfully plays things right down the middle as our principal suspect, keeping us guessing from scene to scene as to whether Erich is a sociopathic killer or just an innocent jerk. He also has potent chemistry with Robertson in scenes where each is trying to charm the other to find out what he/she knows.
By the end of the third episode, I was pretty firmly invested in Murder in the First, which sports a large ensemble that also includes Richard Schiff (The West Wing), Raphael Sbarge (Once Upon a Time), Nicole Ari Parker (Revolution) and Currie Graham (Raising the Bar). If this show feels like a throwback for Bochco, maybe he just figured if it’s not broken, why fix it?