Steven Bochco is on my list of the all-time great pioneers of modern television, the first if you will of the breed that became today’s ‘showrunner’. His initial big success, Hill Street Blues, was the first to break through out of the formulaic American TV drama production line model that had dominated up to then, and demonstrate that such shows could aspire to be something more, something greater, something different. He went on to helm the incredibly successful series LA Law and NYPD Blue as well as short-lived but highly innovative shows such as Murder One and the musical Cop Rock.
It’s Murder One country that Bochco is revisiting with his latest show Murder in the First, which shares its predecessor’s conceit of following just one homicide case from start to finish over the course of a full season. As a big fan of that show at the time, I was excited to see what Bochco and his latest collaborators, co-creator Eric Lodal and pilot director Thomas Schlamme, would do with this fertile ground second time around.
The surprising thing is that Murder in the First is really very low key. In fact it’s very plain and ordinary. This is clearly a conscious decision, as Schlamme does everything he can to make the show’s setting of San Francisco as unremarkable and unobtrusive as possible, especially compared with how unique and vibrant LA and NYPD (and even the fictional city setting of Hill Street) were made to appear in Bochco’s past productions. In this case it feels as though the backdrop of San Francisco is only grudgingly there because one of the key characters is an internet billionaire whizz kid by the name of Erich Blunt; San Francisco is where the internet geniuses live, so that’s where the show must be set. Other than that, it’s rather irrelevant.
The plot of the first hour-long pilot episode (penned by Lodal) is similarly low-key, with Inspectors English and Mulligan looking into the death of a junkie in a bad part of town. The only remarkable aspect of the case is that it leads to English and Mulligan coming into contact with Blunt and finding out a surprising fact about his past. But otherwise, it’s not until the very end of the episode that things start to kick off, as the two detectives attend a new crime scene at which a young woman had been found naked and dead at the foot of a flight of stairs in her home. At this point we don’t know whether it’s accident or foul play, but we do know that she had been working for Blunt until he fired her the previous day in a fit of temper over a spilt glass of wine. The game, as they say, is afoot.
The rest of the episode is given over to character-building, although really only three make a significant impression upfront. Taye Diggs does some very strong work here as English, a man haunted by the imminent death of his beloved wife from end-stage cancer, but Kathleen Robertson has less to work with as the perkily perfect working single mom Mulligan. The best role by far is that of the mercurial and charismatic Blunt, and Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) is quick to seize the opportunity with both hands and run with it to scene-stealing good effect. Others present in the pilot include Richard Schiff (reliably dry as Blunt’s attorney), Ian Anthony Dale (as the senior SFPD officer in charge of English and Mulligan) and Raphael Sbarge (playing another SFPD detective, the annoyingly prissy Molk.) The casting of Steven Weber in the initially small role of another employee of Blunt’s who finds the victim’s body gives away the fact that he’s going to be a much more important part of the case than he appears up front.
On the whole it’s very slow-burn, with none of the urgency that I would have expected from Bochco especially given that there’s only ten episodes to cover the entire case (Murder One by contrast kept up a breathless urgency for 23 instalments.) It’s just about intriguing enough to want to know where it’ll go for at least one more episode and if things pick up from there then I’m willing to sign on for the entire season, but I found it less compelling up front than I’d expected given its pedigree and it’s largely because of Felton and Diggs that I’m prepared to extend it the extra time.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that in two month’s time I’ll be on the edge of my seat waiting for the big reveal at the climax of the season (a second has already been commissioned in the US by the TNT channel). That’s the thing with Bochco – he does know how to put together a TV show that spins a web around you and keeps you enthralled right to the end credits. There’s really no reason why this will be any different once it goes to work.
Murder in the First airs in the UK on the Fox channel on Fridays at 10pm. There’s no DVD or Blu-ray release date schedules as of time of writing – don’t be confused by listings for the 1995 film of the same name starring Christian Slater which is an entirely different project.