Murder One: Season One

[23 March 2005]

By Samantha Bornemann

Celebrity Justice

We thought for sure we were gonna run 170 years.
—Barbara Bosson, “Making the Case: Season One”

You can’t really compare Murder One to any show. Here it is, it’s a show set in LA about law. Bochco didL.A. Law and there is nothing, nothing, alike about those two shows. Not the look, not the writing, not the characters, not the law firm.
—Jason Gedrick, “Making the Case: Season One”

It’s not unusual to find collaborators extolling each other’s virtues on DVD commentary tracks. But in the case of Stephen Bochco’s Murder One—a series that in its first season followed one crime over 23 engrossing chapters—the mutual admiration feels deserved. Nearly 10 years after its premiere, Season One remains impressive, unsettling and influential.

All dark interiors and blinding sunlight, the series’ mix of handheld and long-lens camerawork, faux footage from “LAW TV,” and cropped and off-center framing feels current and familiar. “I always wondered if The Practice stole the look of Murder One,” Jason Gedrick says in his commentary for Chapter Eight. “You can see a lot of people trying to capture the same look.”

But Ted Hoffman—the illustrious defense attorney who serves as the series’ not-quite moral center—is no preachy, indulgent Bobby Donnell, thank god. Mesmerizingly played by Daniel Benzali, Ted respects the law but understands that the courthouse is just one of its venues. “I saw [him] as an embattled man in the mode of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe,” Benzali says in the DVD’s featurette, “Making the Case: Season One.” He describes the series as “a modern film noir” examining “the darkness beneath the gloss of LA.”

Within the series’ first minutes, we learn of 15-year-old Jessica Costello’s murder (she was raped, then strangled, her body found naked and tied to a bed) and meet the eventual defendant, addict and TV star Neil Avedon (Gedrick). At that same moment, Neil and Teddy, his exasperated lawyer, have other business to resolve. A veritable courthouse regular, Neil’s latest run-in with the law involves breaking a swan’s neck. Ted pleads the case down to violence to an animal, then promptly fires Neil as a client: “I’m through cleaning up after you, you ungrateful little jerk.”

But the pretty boy won’t be out of Teddy’s office for long. As rich and convoluted as a novel, Murder One briefly puts “entrepreneur philanthropist” Richard Cross (who carries on with the victim’s sister Julie, among others, while his wife looks the other way) in the hot seat. He’s charged with the murder and represented by Ted until a convenient witness (Tia Carerre) provides him with an alibi. Then the case circles back around to Neil (who was “dating” Jessica), via semen and DNA. Both Richard (Stanley Tucci) and studio bigwig Gary Blondo (John Pleshette), who has a lot riding on Neil’s upcoming film (“Do you have any idea what will happen if this kid’s convicted? Deadbolt can get in line behind Ishtar, Hudson Hawk, and Howard the Duck”), press Ted to take the case. “I love that he hates representing me,” Gedrick says in his commentary. “I loved it as an actor, I loved it as a character. I love it now.”

The series provides plenty of reasons to dislike Neil. A tawdry videotape, first offered for sale to Ted, then disseminated to the tabloids, proves that he liked to strangle his partners a bit during sex, and an in-firm lie detector test reveals he can’t remember all his actions during drug-induced blackouts. At the same time, the culprit could easily be influential, secretive Richard, who clearly knows far more than he’s admitting. And what about the sinister shrink attached to both men? Not even the actors knew the murderer’s identity. “I had no idea if I really was innocent or not,” Gedrick says. “And that was part of their device, I guess. You know, leave the actor in the dark and he won’t know and it just keeps the element of surprise out there for everyone.”

Inspired by the nation’s fascination with the OJ Simpson case, Murder One was just revving up as that trial was ending (the verdict fell the week of Episode Three) and the Menendez brothers were supplanting Simpson in the Court TV lineup. Viewed today, the series looks forward to the cases of Robert Blake (as when Neil coaxes Ted into letting him be interviewed by a Barbara Walters type), Jacko, and Phil Spector. Public fascination with beautiful victims and famous (alleged) culprits is not, alas, a fad.

Ted’s wife (Patricia Clarkson) predicts that the Costello case will become a circus:

A case like this one, with all the theatrics and media hoopla, it’s not about getting to the truth. It’s show business. Crime as entertainment. Everybody’s a celebrity—lawyers, witnesses, jurors—and the whole idea of justice goes right out the window.

Ted asserts otherwise: “I’d like to think the basics haven’t changed. It’s still about presenting your case in the courtroom and letting the jury decide.” But whether he can clear Neil’s name will hinge on far more than his machinations before a judge and jury. In the world view of Murder One, doling out justice and righting wrongs runs a distant second, at best, to winning the courthouse game.

When a celebrity goes on trial, law and order seems the great leveler, as the courts might demand humility from everyone. This is exemplified in Episode Two, which splits its focus between the Costello case and a suit brought against Daryl Jackson (Steve Harris), whose fiancée Lila (Vanessa Williams) is Ted’s receptionist. When Justine (Mary McCormack), another lawyer at the firm, learns that Daryl has been erroneously charged with running a white woman off the road and his lawyer wants him to plead down to a lesser offense, she steps in to represent him. Although the presiding judge (Dion Anderson) objects at every turn to Justine’s arguments that racism played a role in Daryl’s arrest, she still secures an acquittal. But the judge announces his hope that Daryl has learned his lesson, that “Despite your allegations of mistreatment, the systems work.” This lecture is too much for Daryl, who responds:

If the system worked, I wouldn’t have been hauled off the street for a crime I didn’t commit. If the system worked, I wouldn’t have been humiliated in front of my neighbors and I wouldn’t have had to pay every cent I saved to keep myself out of jail. So don’t expect me to bow and scrape with gratitude ‘cause I only got half-screwed by the system.

Most legal shows would let Daryl off with a warning, but Murder One knows better. Incensed that Daryl won’t apologize for speaking out, the judge holds him in contempt. Justine has to bring in big gun Ted Hoffman to coax Daryl into saying whatever he must to escape jail. Ted is the lawyer everyone wants and precious few can afford. That reality was the true ripped-from-the-headlines tragedy at the heart of Murder One.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/murder-one-1-dvd/