August 12, 2014

THE SKED Season Finale Review: “Murder In the First”


The season finale (if it’s lucky) of TNT’s mediocre MURDER IN THE FIRST was rather sad, pallid proof that the powerhouse writer/producer Steven Bochco has been outstripped by the genre he helped invent, the serialized adult crime drama.  Murder In the First tried, sometimes painfully, to be newfangled, throwing in the latest in basic cable profanity and semi-nudity, but it belonged to an earlier, more linear form of narrative television, one that doggedly insisted on touching each letter of the alphabet as it made its laborious way through its ten hour run from A to Z.

The finale, written by Bochco’s co-series creator Eric Lodal (the two of them took story credit on each episode, itself an old-fashioned way for a series honcho to establish his authority over absolutely everything) and directed by Bochco’s son Jesse, circled all the way back to the first episode of the series, as intrepid San Francisco homicide inspectors Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) finally managed to trap arrogant, odious billionaire Erich Blunt (Tom Felton) for the murder of his estranged father, the body they’d discovered at the very beginning of the show, before Blunt’s mistress had also been killed and he was arrested and acquitted for that crime, a process that took up most of the season.  The sad part came with the episode’s centerpiece, the sequence that was clearly meant to demonstrate how clever Terry and Hildy (and thus Bochco and his co-creator) had been, as Erich, justifiably paranoid, insisted on his friend and colleague Bill Wilkerson (Steven Weber) stripping naked to prove that he wasn’t wearing a wire, and once satisfied, monologued his confession at Bond-villain length (and with tinged with a weirdly similar genocidal flavor).  Did Bochco and Lidal really not realize that virtually every viewer would already know that there was another bug in the room?  (In Erich’s own cell phone, we soon learned.)  The following sequence, which had Erich sauntering into the police station the next day to frame Wilkerson, only to discover that he’d been outsmarted, was painfully anti-cllimactic–it felt like Bochco and Lodal had made fools of themselves as much as Erich.

Murder In the First failed in many other respects along the way.  The plotting was often dismal (Erich’s brainstorm was to have his elderly cancer-ridden grandfather murder his father, even though he could have afforded any number of profesionals), and there were only token stabs at developing any of the characters after the opening hour or two, with an occasional reminder that Terry’s wife had died of cancer, or that Hildy’s marriage had fallen apart.  Contemporary serialized whodunnits (The Bridge and Broadchurch, to name just two) toy with conventional notions of morality and justice, but Murder In the First admitted no ambiguity:  Erich Blunt was introduced as a nasty, sociopathic piece of work, and by the end, not only had he been arrested, but he’d been deserted by every single person in his life (down to his loyal attorney, played by Richard Schiff) and finally committed suicide.  An affair between one of the senior cops and the District Attorney, and the possibility of romance between Terry and Hildy, turned out to be just window dressing.

A very fine cast was left with not much to play, although James Cromwell had a fine old time as Erich’s shrewd defense attorney, and Robertson every once in a while suggested a Hildy who was a darker, more ambiguous character than she’d been written to be.  Diggs was nicely, wearily heroic throughout, and Felton has been perfecting his smarminess since he was a mere boy wearing Slytherin robes.  The show was professionally put together–but it lacked any spark at all.

TNT is in fairly strong shape these days (especially compared to USA, which used to be its chief rival), and although Murder In the First had a passable rating, it squandered a big chunk of its Major Crimes lead-in, and the network doesn’t really need to show mercy to bubble shows that have generated little buzz.  All of that bodes badly for Murder, a series that demonstrated how far serious TV has come since its co-creator, once upon a time, permanently shook the medium up.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."