June 10, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Murder In the First”


MURDER IN THE FIRST:  Monday 10PM on TNT – If Nothing Else Is On…

Steven Bochco practically invented modern television with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, so even though it’s been a while since his glory days were in full swing, attention must be paid when he takes another turn at bat.  His new cop drama MURDER IN THE FIRST, which he created with newcomer Eric Lodal, is fairly well executed, but based on its pilot, less than essential viewing.

Among the innovations Bochco brought to TV was the idea of a crime drama that would follow a single case over the course of an entire season.  That series, Murder One, merely managed to limp to a second season on ABC (and Season 2 abandoned its original structure in favor of bite-sized story arcs), but its template is everywhere today, not just in the US but worldwide, from The Killing to The Bridge to True Detective to Broadchurch and its new American remake Gracepoint.  He returns to it with Murder In the First, which centers around a pair of San Francisco homicide detectives, Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson).  They’re assigned to the case of a murdered middle-aged junkie who turns out to be the biological father of high-tech billionaire Erich Blunt (Tom Felton), and by the end of the pilot, a flight attendant who’d been having an affair with Blunt has been found dead as well.

With 10 hours to tell its story, the Murder In the First pilot (written by Lodal, from a story he wrote with Bochco, and directed by veteran Thomas Schlamme) isn’t in a great hurry.  Another of Bochco’s lasting twists on the procedural genre was making the personal lives of its protagonists as important as their crime-solving, and each of the detectives here has a backstory.  Mulligan is a divorced mother, complete with cute young daughter, who’s re-entering the dating pool, while the pilot ends with English becoming a widower, as his wife succumbs to pancreatic cancer, a long struggle that’s left him emotionally ragged.  Robertson was one of the best things about Starz’s Boss, and Diggs was a stalwart lead all the way through Private Practice, but on first glance they have only medium chemistry together as partners.

The mystery itself is similarly just moderately engaging.  Blunt is the requisite post-Social Network arrogant computer-genius prick character (Felton is fine, but casting Draco Malfoy in the role wasn’t exactly the height of subtlety), and so much evidence points in his direction that one assumes he’s a red herring.  There are plenty of other recognizable suspects around, including Steven Weber as Blunt’s private pilot who just happens to be the one who discovers the flight attendant’s body, and Richard Schiff as Blunt’s cynical, pony-tailed attorney.  (James Cromwell and Paula Marshall are among those yet to turn up.)  It remains to be seen if Murder will follow the ultimately annoying red-herring-of-the-week structure of The Killing, or if Lidal and Bochco have more interesting plotting in mind.

There’s nothing terribly wrong with Murder In the First.  It has a brisk enough pace, a skilled cast, and dialogue that doesn’t hurt the ears.  There’s no getting around the fact, however, that the changes Bochco brought to the procedural genre are no longer startling or exciting in and of themselves; these days, a serialized mystery can feel as routine as one solved in a single episode.  The first hour of Murder In the First gives the impression that it may end up feeling more familiar than remarkable, but perhaps as the season goes on, Steven Bochco will still have some surprises up his sleeve.

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."