Murder in the First: The Complete First Season DVD Review: Boring in the Second

Steven Bochco seems to have forgotten what decade it is and made a TV show from the late '80s.
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Even as a kid I knew the name Steven Bochco.  I was too young to watch most of his shows (though Doogie Howser, M.D. was a personal favorite), and I certainly didn’t care about TV producers at the time but I still knew his name.  Dude was the superstar of television dramas in the '80s.  With Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, and NYPD Blue he nearly single-handedly created the template for modern adult dramas on broadcast TV.  In 1995, well ahead of its time, he created Murder One, which was one of the very first crime shows to solve one case over an entire season.  Without Bochco, television would have looked a lot different than it does today.  We’re all the better for him. Which is why it's so painful to note that Murder in the First feels like nothing more than a trotting out of the same old, tired television cliches.  It's as if Bochco is still stuck back in the mid-'90s making the same shows he was back then.

The series opens and we find a very young, very attractive, very nearly naked woman awoken from her slumber by her very cute, very precocious daughter bringing her the phone from her very ex-husband.  The woman’s a cop trying to rise through the ranks in a very manly profession as a woman - a single mom even - balancing career and a personal life.  Her partner is a black man whose wife is dying of cancer. Can he solve the case if he's constantly worried about his wife dying?

If that sounds to you like every other cop drama that’s been on over the last ten years, you are not alone.  I swear I must have groaned half a dozen times during the pilot alone after one cliche and then another was brought out before me. Utter disappointment is the word.  It's not just that Bochco let me down, but this thing is filled with people who are better than this.  Taye Diggs is the black cop; Kathleen Robertson the blonde.  The main suspect is Malfoy himself - Mr. Tom Felton with Richard Schiff acting as his general attorney (and James Cromwell as his criminal one).  Throw in Steven Weber as his pilot and you’ve got a darn good cast looking for something better.  The pilot episode was directed by The West Wing’s Thomas Schlamme (with episode four getting helmed by Allison Anders whose Gas Food Lodging was terrific)  With all that pedigree why isn’t this better?

Actually it does get better as it goes along.  Or maybe I just settled into its middle-of-the-road, broadcast-on-TNT mediocre-ness. Either way I found myself resigned to more or less enjoying it.  It originally aired last summer and with the DVD set coming out at the beginning of this one, it's a fair way to loll away those long summer nights. Like a beach book, sometimes you want your television shows to be something you don’t have to pay attention to, something that don’t need to actually be much good, something you can just let wash over while you sit around doing nothing much.

Murder in the First would actually work better as a crime-of-the-week series, instead of one crime spread over ten episodes.  When you stretch out a crime like that, you need to dig deep into the details of the case and how they are solved while also really developing the characters.  They do neither here.  The characters never crawl out of broad brushstrokes (though the actors do their darnedest to make something out of what they're given) and the crime is painted with fewer details than your typical episode of Law & Order.  That show seems to be the model for this one as after a few episodes we jump into trial mode with the same typical force and development as any of the Dick Wolf-created episodes.

It's appropriate that this runs directly after Major Crimes on TNT.  I’ve never watched Major Crimes but for all intents and purposes it is simply The Closer without Kyra Sedgwick and I rather liked that show.  The Closer wasn’t great television, but it knew it wasn’t and it had a lot of fun at what it was.  Murder in the First wants to be taken seriously but it's far too ridiculous to be anything close to prestige television.

It has the talent to be something more, and I’m hoping that with a little tweaking, it can cling to its strengths, trim away its serious flaws, and become worth watching.  As it is I’m more inclined to catch reruns of NYPD Blue than bother wishing this could be better.

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