Tag Archives: The West Wing

Steven Bochco’s back with Murder in the First on TNT

'Murder in the First' premieres Monday on TNT.

Kathleen Robertson and Taye Diggs star as San Francisco police detectives investigating a pair of apparently connected killings in ‘Murder in the First,’ premiering Monday on TNT.

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?
Tom Felton in 'Murder in the First.'

British actor Tom Felton stars as a young Silicon Valley billionaire who becomes the prime suspect in a double murder in TNT’s new drama ‘Murder in the First.’

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Trophy Wife, a very promising new sitcom premiering tonight on ABC, is blessed with a strong cast and some sharp writing, but saddled with arguably the worst, most misleading title of the season (more about the latter below).
Malin Akerman (The Comeback) stars as Kate, a beautiful girl who loves nothing more than partying nightly with her best friend, Meg (Natalie Morales, The Middleman) – until one karaoke night when Kate literally falls into the arms of Pete (Bradley Whitford, The West Wing), a slightly older environmental lawyer.
Romance ensues, and Kate soon becomes Pete’s wife – more specifically, his third wife, a position that comes with more baggage than a cruise ship. Pete’s first ex-wife, Diane (Marcia Gay Harden), is a brilliant medical doctor who regards the younger Kate with withering dismissal, an attitude immediately adopted by her teenage daughter, Hillary (Bailee Madison), although Hillary’s twin brother, Warren (Ryan Lee), is instantly smitten by his new stepmom. In fact, Warren’s school essays start to take on a disconcertingly erotic tone and feature a female figure who seems vaguely … familiar.
Pete’s second ex-wife, Jackie (Saturday Night Live alumna Michaela Watkins), is a neurotic, New Age-y mess and has a hyper-intelligent young adopted Asian son (scene-stealer Albert Tsai) who is completely unintimidated by the grown-ups around him.
Tonight’s pilot follows Kate as she tries to establish a meaningful place for herself in Pete’s crowded life, which means trying to make some connection with stepdaughter Hillary, who isn’t having any of it. The episode gives most of the cast members a chance to shine, none more brightly than Akerman, a starlet-pretty actress who also comes across as smart, funny, warm and accessible. Whitford, always a joy to watch, shows us how much Pete genuinely adores Kate, although his character seems to spend much of his screen time reacting to his extended family members (here’s hoping he becomes less passive in future episodes).
As the ex-wives, Harden, an Oscar winner who elevates any scene just by walking into it, makes Diane a formidable adversary for Kate while never crossing the line into stale bitchiness, but frankly I had a very hard time understanding why Peter ever would have married someone as scatterbrained as Watkins’ Jackie (the writers need to fix that, and soon).
In other words, from a creative standpoint, Trophy Wife is a likable enough show, but there’s a very real chance some viewers will never sample it because of its terrible title. Kate isn’t a trophy wife in any sense of the phrase. Pete cherishes everything about her, and she’s a strong, intelligent woman who actively engages with everyone else in his life, instead of just standing around looking decorative. Calling this show Trophy Wife sets up expectations of a sitcom that is far less appealing and engaging than this one is. And if you don’t think a misleading title can hobble a show’s chances, just talk to the creative team behind Cougar Town.
Trophy Wife already has something of an uphill struggle to find an audience in its insanely competitive Tuesday time period, opposite such established hits as The Voice, NCIS: LA, surging sophomore sitcom The Mindy Project and the long-running CW cult hit Supernatural. It doesn’t help that the lead-in to Trophy Wife is one of ABC’s feeblest new shows.
That would be The Goldbergs. Actually, I don’t want to be too hard on this doomed sitcom, because I suspect a lot of love went into it behind the scenes. Its creator, Adam F. Goldberg, based the show on his own upbringing back in the 1980s, when he grew up in a fractious but loving family headed by a blustering dad (Jeff Garlin, Curb Your Enthusiasm) who can’t articulate his love for his three kids and a doting mom (the glorious Wendi McLendon-Covey, Bridesmaids) whose love knows no bounds – or, unfortunately for her kids, boundaries.
The obvious template for this show is the Emmy-winning 1988-93 sitcom The Wonder Years. What Goldberg has overlooked, alas, is that we can’t all be the Arnolds from that cherished hit of yesteryear. There isn’t much that’s truly original or noteworthy about the Goldberg family except that most of them SCREAM A LOT FOR NO GOOD REASON. In fact, if the Nielsen ratings were measured in decibels, The Goldbergs probably would be the top-ranked show of the 2013-14 TV season.
Everything else, though, feels fairly generic, including George Segal’s dotty old grandpa character. How generic? The pilot revolves heavily around the father figure’s reluctance to teach his teenage son (Troy Gentile) how to drive. Coincidentally, Fox has a midseason comedy, Surviving Jack, waiting in the wings about an intimidating dad (Chris Meloni, in that case) who has a hard time expressing love to his kids. The pilot for that show has a pivotal scene in which Meloni’s character teaches his teenage son to drive. Did I mention that Surviving Jack is set in a recent past decade (the ‘90s) and based on the true-life teen experiences of its creator?
I suspect The Goldbergs tested through the roof with relatives of Adam F. Goldberg, but there’s not much here for the rest of us. There’s a good chance this show will be gone by Thanksgiving. I’m just hoping it doesn’t take Trophy Wife down with it.

A new TV ‘Mom’ to embrace

Allison Janney (top) and Anna Faris
Mom, a somewhat dark but mostly delightful new sitcom premiering tonight on CBS, comes from the prolific writer-producer Chuck Lorre, who has put his creative fingerprints on comedy hits as diverse as Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, Dharma & Greg, Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory during the course of his long career.
On that continuum, Mom falls much closer to the blue-collar tone of Roseanne and Grace than the aging-frat-boys-‘n’-farts humor of the still-running Two and a Half Men. This new show stars movie sex kitten Anna Faris in her TV series debut as Christy, a single mom struggling to make ends meet as a waitress without sliding back into alcoholism (she stopped drinking 118 days ago).
It isn’t easy. She still regrets giving up her dream of becoming a psychologist when she was forced to drop out of high school after becoming pregnant with her now-teenage daughter, Violet (Sadie Calvano). Recently, the frazzled Christy has started to realize that she is turning into her own mother, Bonnie (four-time Emmy winner Allison Janney, The West Wing), who was a grossly negligent drunk and cocaine addict while Christy was growing up, and she is horrified to see Violet repeating her own past mistakes with dim-witted and perpetually shirtless boyfriend Luke (Spencer Daniels). Even worse, Christy knows she doesn’t hold the moral high ground in this situation.
“I can’t tell you not to drink and smoke pot because my senior yearbook quote was ‘Let’s drink and smoke pot!’ ‘’ she sighs to her daughter.
And, while Christy is now sober, she’s still making bad choices, sliding into a demeaning affair with her boss, Gabriel (Nate Corddry, Harry’s Law), who’s married to the daughter of the restaurant owner. It’s a good thing Christy’s pre-adolescent son Roscoe (Blake Garrett Rosenthal) still thinks Mom is the best.
Into this volatile dynamic, Bonnie unexpectedly reappears after a tense two-year estrangement with Christy. She’s been sober(-ish) for a couple of years now, and she wants to mend fences with her daughter and get to know her grandkids.
But while Bonnie tries to present herself as Soccer Grandma of the Year (“I have a steady job! I exercise! I’m in a BOOK CLUB!”), Christy can’t forget the days when Bonnie was in the basement cooking crystal meth while Christy was in the kitchen cooking dinner.
“I’ve watched you lick cocaine crumbs out of a shag carpet!” Christy reminds her.
“It’s no sin to be thrifty, dear,” Bonnie calmly replies.
Tonight’s pilot episode feels a little unfocused as the writers attempt to introduce multiple characters in Christy’s various worlds, including the restaurant kitchen, where a comically autocratic chef played by French Stewart (3rd Rock From the Sun) barks things like “More butter and salt! They only have to live long enough to pay the check!”
The likable Faris makes a credible series debut, although she hasn’t yet figured out how to play this end-of-her-rope character without occasionally sliding into whininess. Janney, however, is absolutely sublime. Bonnie is a soul sister to Holland Taylor’s Evelyn Harper on Two and a Half Men, a still-beautiful cougar whose affection for her loved ones is probably genuine, but not entirely reliable.
Out of all this season’s new network comedies, Mom is the one that feels most authentic, with its delicate balance of familial love and anger. Based on this first episode, I’m in.

New on Blu-ray: ‘The Newsroom: The Complete First Season’

Aaron Sorkin won an Academy Award for writing the screenplay to The Social Network, the 2010 movie hit about the founding of Facebook, yet it’s the medium of television that seems to captivate him most. In addition to The Farnsworth Invention, a play that ran on Broadway for just 104 performances in 2007-08, Sorkin has written three high-profile TV shows revolving around the world of television. First came the critically acclaimed ABC sitcom Sports Night (1998-2000), which still sparkles a decade and a half later (you can stream all episodes from both seasons on Hulu Plus).
After taking time off from the topic to write and produce the Emmy magnet/political drama The West Wing, Sorkin returned to television as a backdrop for Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, set behind the scenes of a Saturday Night Live-type comedy series. Unfortunately, that show never found its creative footing, partly because while Sorkin can write some very funny scenes, the sketch-comedy format seemed to elude him altogether, and Studio 60 limped through a single season (2006-07).
His most recent series return, The Newsroom – released today on Blu-ray and DVD from HBO Home Entertainment – falls somewhere between the artistic success of Sports Night and the painful belly flop of Studio 60.
Set behind the scenes at the fictional Atlantis Cable Network (ACN) channel, the dramedy follows anchor Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) and his team as they embark on a quixotic attempt to raise the level of American journalism – and, indeed, public discourse in general – by taking the high road in its News Night newscast without allowing ratings to drive content. Will is encouraged to this end by his boss, ACN news division president Charlie Skinner (Law & Order veteran Sam Waterston), who has taken the extraordinarily risky step of hiring a new producer for the show: MacKenzie McHale (Emily Mortimer), with whom Will was romantically involved four years ago until she cheated on him with a former lover.
The Newsroom polarized TV critics during its first season, primarily on two fronts. First, even if you happen to share Sorkin’s progressive politics (as, full disclosure, I do), it’s easy to see why viewers of other persuasions might be turned off by the writer’s tendency here to indulge in sermonizing. On a related note, Sorkin made the creative choice to build each episode around an actual news event from the recent past – the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the shooting of Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, the assassination of Osama bin Laden – which allows his characters almost preternaturally always to make the right choices in deciding how to handle a story.
And while Sorkin is by no means a misogynist, he took flak about how he wrote for some of the women on the show. In one scene, a peripheral female character bursts into the newsroom (on the 25th floor of a high-security building, mind you), screaming because her boyfriend, a staff member, stood her up for their Valentine’s Day date. Maggie Jordan (Alison Pill), a News Night associate producer, at one point confides to a colleague that she got in trouble for signing a formal bereavement message with “LOL,” explaining that she thought it stood for “lots of love.” Seriously? A 20-something woman working in a Manhattan communications company doesn’t know what “LOL” means?
Even more irritatingly, other characters keep describing MacKenzie McHale as one of the most fearless producers on the planet, who has kept a calm head in the riskiest of combat zones, yet she keeps collapsing into a whining puddle in front of her staff over the failure of her relationship with Will – which ended, and I really think this bears repeating, four years ago. I know we’re being prompted to pull for these two erstwhile lovebirds to get back together, but it would be easier to do that if MacKenzie weren’t such a basket case from time to time.
Spending time with this new Blu-ray release, however, reminded me that, for its occasional flaws, The Newsroom still has so much going for it. For one thing, when Sorkin steps down from the pulpit, he is able to make words breakdance, somersault, cartwheel and generally thrill us like very few other writers these days. He writes punchlines that deftly and irreverently pull the rug out from under a scene that appears to be going for a tearjerker moment, and lengthy monologues that are grand opera arias without the music. It’s easy to understand why the cast of The Newsroom is populated almost entirely with theater veterans who understand Sorkin’s heightened style of writing and are able to catch the wave of his language and ride it to a thrilling climax in scene after scene.
Beyond that, The Newsroom is packed with some absolutely fantastic performances. Daniels has the toughest job as Will, our resident Man of La Mancha (a musical that keeps turning up during season one), but this underrated actor does a brilliant job of showing us the insecurity under Will’s bravado, which only makes his (probably doomed) quest that much more touching. Even more revelatory is Waterston – if you know him only from his work as poker-faced Assistant District Attorney Jack McCoy on the long-running Law & Order, you are probably going to be stunned by his hilarious work here as Charlie, who frequently is halfway in the bag from the bottles he keeps stashed in his desk. John Gallagher Jr., who won a Tony Award for his shattering performance in the Broadway musical Spring Awakening, makes a touching and endearing TV series debut as News Night producer Jim Harper, who is secretly carrying a torch for Maggie, and Olivia Munn, former “senior Asian correspondent” on The Daily Show With John Stewart, sneaks up on you with her smart performance as brilliant yet romantically hapless economist Sloan Sabbith. In a recurring role that plays against her public image, Jane Fonda is spectacular as Leona Lansing, the CEO of ACN’s parent company who is a veteran publisher yet needs the support of right-wing zillionaires for business reasons.
Technically, the 6-disc Blu-ray/DVD set is impeccable, with extras that include a “Mission Control” feature exploring the mind-boggling set for the show, as well as a genial roundtable with Sorkin, Daniels, Waterston and Mortimer and two producers reflecting on season one and five audio commentaries including most of the principals (although not, sadly, Gallagher) and lead producers. Be sure to listen to the commentary for episode 10, the season one finale, in which Sorkin can’t help dropping a few spoilers for season two (three words: Sloan and Don).
From left, John Gallagher Jr. and Thomas Sadoski as, respectively, Jim and Don, romantic rivals for Maggie