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'Murder in the First' Is Only a Mild Intellectual Puzzle

Lesley Smith

In Murder in the First we see TNT's obvious investment in production, some promising direction, and a professional cast doing its best with a dodgy script.

Murder in the First

Airtime: Mondays, 10pm ET
Cast: Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson, Ian Anthony Dale, A J Buckley, Emmanuelle Chriqui, Mo McRae, Raphael Sbarge, Currie Graham, Mateus Ward, John Cothran, Jimmy Bennet
Subtitle: Season Two Premiere
Network: TNT
Director: Jesse Bochco
Air date: 2015-06-08

TNT’s Murder in the First returns for a second summer, plunging its tough but vulnerable detectives, Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson), into another high-stakes crime investigation in San Francisco. With the potential for stunning locations, a brace of Bochcos on board (father Steven as co-creator, son Jesse as director of the season openers), and sharp actors, Murder in the First should sizzle from the first. Yet, as so often with Bochco Senior’s recent work, the concept lacks originality and the execution lacks panache. Instead, we see the network's obvious investment in production, some promising direction, and a professional cast doing its best with a dodgy script.

Scripting matters in a genre like the cop show, where so much of the action is pro forma and familiar to likely viewers. Yet co-creator Eric Lodal and Robert Munic, who wrote the first two episodes, resort to platitudes snatched from the 24-hour news cycle. When a colleague mentions that a school bus involved in a bloody crime might stay on the street for a week, Mulligan piously intones. “This city can’t begin to heal until this bus is out of sight.”

Her partner fares no better. When English is grabbing a much-needed meal at a local diner, junior uniformed cop Raffi Velacruz (Emmanuelle Chriqui) slips into the seat beside him and starts spearing his huevos rancheros. As she imitates a well-known sexual maneuver with each mouthful, the very uncomfortable-looking English asks whether she’s satisfied. “Hardly ever,” she smirks, cueing the least convincing backroom sex of the TV year.

Despite such generic plotting, Jesse Bochco delivers some visual creativity, choreographing overlapping layers of action in order to inject energy into basic walking and talking scenes. Though the action scenes might benefit from more ruthless editing, he directs principals and extras well enough that a complex, multi-stage downtown crisis oscillates compellingly between a tense standoff and frantic, confused activity.

Helpfully, he has a good eye for the contingent detail: when the detectives and technicians are processing the underground site of a fellow officer’s death, he stretches the time passing to indicate their obsessive scrutiny of crime scene details. And when the same cop’s body is carried into the street, the somewhat predictable, albeit beautifully framed, cut-aways to observing cops and EMTs include a fleeting moment where one weary tactical officer doffs his helmet in respect. Less compellingly, this sequence unfolds in a sentimental slo-mo nudge to the audience. It also falls into the trap of sending key members of the cast into a dark place with no electricity and making them wave flashlights, as if such cliché might constitute either drama or tension.

The director's most signal misstep, though, lies in a failure to make his cast look anything but good. The story may demand that English and Mulligan behave as if they are exhausted, overwrought, and grief-stricken at the death of a friend. They look, however, if they were styled for GQ and Vogue, even when wearing Kevlar.

When Mulligan slides the wall to sit on the floor in apparent despair, the rips in her jeans fall artfully and symmetrically across her knees. In another scene, Velacruz, fumbling through an earthquake occurring while she's in a basement, nearly plunges down an open shaft -- yet not a hair falls out of place. It is slightly unfair to task Bochco alone with challenging American television’s obsession with glossy surfaces, but in long-haul TV, credibility outweighs good looks in drawing viewers to that final episode.

Such superficial details distract from what the show might have done well. Murder in the First's focus on one case for the season recalls Bochco’s own slow-burning pioneer, Murder One, which followed a single murder case, from the perspective of the defense, for a heroic 20 episodes. This structure inspired other recent, gritty European contenders (some remade for US TV), including The Fall, Broadchurch, The Killing, and Spiral. Only Spiral, however, turns the TV hour inside out in the way Bochco’s own Hill Street Blues did 30 years ago.

Spiral also dissects without mercy the private and professional lives of cops, lawyers, and criminals, and heightens both pace and tension through a crackling sequence of ad hoc cases and crises. Murder in the First does not. Instead, it offers polished production values, atmospheric cinematography, and competent performances. However much corruption and amorality Murder in the First uncovers, however many times it executes the sentimental heart-tug, it promises, in this second season, only a mild intellectual puzzle stretched over far too many episodes.


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