Murder in the First Series Premiere Review: A Lesser Charge

Murder in the First S01E01: "Pilot"

Murder in the First is the latest in a long-ish line of shows that aim to marry that old stalwart of television dramas—the investigative and criminal procedural—with heavily serialized storytelling by focusing on a single case for an entire season. True Detective did it and intends to continue. The Fall and Top of the Lake and Broadchurch and Fargo have all offered variations on the approach. We thought that The Killing was going to do it, and eventually it did, in Season 3. Kidnapped gave it a go, but the back half of its run was ultimately burned off during the summer. Veronica Mars followed the structure for two of its three seasons. The Wire arguably did it in Season 1 before the series widened its scope. And of course, before those shows were even twinkles in their creators' eyes, there was Murder One back in 1996.

The ABC drama focused on the lawyers involved in the central murder more than it focused on the cops. However, like Murder in the First, it was co-created by Steven Bochco, and Murder in the First feels like an attempt to rework Murder One in a TV environment where heavy-ish primetime serialization is less of a curse than it was in 1996 (Murder One's "previously ons" grew longer and longer as the season progressed, and in Season 2, the show was restructured to do multiple cases in shorter arcs; think Season 3 of Veronica Mars). There's nothing wrong with revisiting an idea that was conceived before its time, but in this case, it's an idea that's already been revisited quite often, and with varying degrees of success. So what does Murder in the First have to offer in an effort to stand out from its peers?

Aside from some really nice on-location shooting in San Francisco and to-be-expected excellent direction from Thomas Schlamme, not a whole lot. Murder in the First isn't bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not overly compelling, either—at least not yet. Given that this is how I feel about most of TNT's cop shows, including the departed The Closer, its follow-up Major Crimes, and even Rizzoli & Isles, the fact that Murder in the First fits snugly within that pattern may be enough to keep fans of those three programs more engaged than I was. And I don't mean that as a knock against Murder in the First, as TNT's particular brand of cop drama has fared pretty well for the cable channel; it's just never exactly grabbed me on a narrative level.

Murder in the First technically follows two cases, because the murder of Kevin Nyers, a drug user who was shot in the head, apparently wasn't as interesting or as sexy as Cindy, the naked dead woman who was found at the foot of her stairs. The two deaths are connected, however, through the tech wunderkind Erich Blunt (Tom Felton, of Harry Potter fame): Nyers may have been Erich's biological father (as we learned in a decent-enough twist), and Cindy was an employee and sex pal, if not a paramour, of Erich's. But now they're both dead, so whodunit? 

I admit that if Nyers was Murder in the First's only case, the show might feel a bit fresher, but the addition of Cindy's corpse—especially since she'll likely be more of a priority in the investigation—just had me thinking, "Oh. Good. Another dead woman. So very new." But at least the pilot provided a nice justification for its interest in Cindy: Since no one had bothered to claim Nyers' body, his murder probably would've been shuffled to the bottom of the list as soon as something more important came up... like a dead young woman in a nice house. Thank goodness the two cases share a through-line, otherwise Nyers might never have gotten any TV justice.

The investigation belongs to Detectives Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and Terry English (Taye Diggs). She's a recent divorcée with a cute kid, and he, as of the end of this first episode, is a widower who lost his wife to pancreatic cancer. Terry is dealing with grief, he's out of the loop on who's famous in the city, and he uses a flip phone and an old wooden desk; meanwhile, Hildy is doing her best to keep her kid happy and has a dating app on her smartphone, because she's ready to move on from her ex. I get the impression that Terry was written to be a bit older than Hildy, but then the show cast Diggs and only changed a few things to make him seem more like a brother than a father. Hildy is certainly the more aggressive-seeming partner; I'm putting aside Terry's beating of a suspect since it seemed to be more of an aberration than anything else. So she's the spitfire cop and he's... well, it's hard to tell what Terry brings to the table just yet.  

Diggs and Robertson already have an easy chemistry, however, which gives the pairing of their two characters a nice lived-in quality that I can groove on. They may butt heads in the future about how to proceed with the case, but the foundation of their partnership seems solid enough that I don't really expect it to crack. In their individual stories, there's less to immediately respond to with regard to Hildy's personal life, apart from the fact that she loves her kid and does not like her ex; Roberston doesn't have anything particularly meaty to sink her teeth into. Diggs has the maudlin plot of the dying/dead wife, and so he has a little more to do, at least at the outset. Terry, Diggs' performance, and the plot are fine so far as these things go.

If there's anyone who immediately stands out, it's Felton. He's got the peacock role as Erich, a likely blend of Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs' respective ids. The actor reuses a lot of the menace he occasionally deployed as Draco Malfoy, but with a bit more of an edge to it. Even if Erich stole the code for his 4-D/virtual reality experience—now's the time to steel yourself for so many Oculus Rift riffs on procedurals—he's an arrogant and cunning guy who manages to harbor any number of secrets despite being an avowed supporter of transparency. Of course he would be, though, wouldn't he? Dramatic winking and all that.

As I mentioned above, my response to Murder in the First s much the same as my response to TNT's other cop shows. Even though I'm not always a fan of the narratives, the network attracts quality actors—The Closer had and Major Crimes has unsung and under-appreciated ensembles, while Rizzoli & Isles touts two great leads and a decent supporting bench—and Murder in the First is no different. TV pros like Steven Webber, Richard Schiff, Currie Graham, and Jamie McShane round out the cast, and titan James Cromwell has at least stepped up a level from Betrayal

So even if the plot, thus far, is kind of middling, there are good actors here to help keep the show chugging along. During most other summers, that would be enough of a reason to give Murder in the First a heartier recommendation, but the show is merely solid—albeit wholly unambitious—and when there are so many more exciting shows on the horizon, solid and unambitious don't really cut it.


– Detective Molk (Raphael Sbarge) is already a favorite character, second only to Richard Schiff's ponytail. His announcement that he's on a juice cleanse provided a much-needed chuckle.

– Hildy's jump from rubber ducky to duck tattoo seemed like a real stretch for me. The tattoo index wouldn't have incorporated ducks as birds into the search parameters, or are people just that lousy at writing metadata? 

– Erich doesn't see a lot of paper; I wonder if he sees a lot of photographs conveniently scattered on a table, like Cindy's were?

– If you're at all interested in this sort of series, I highly recommend Murder One. It had been a while since I watched it myself, so re-watched a few episodes prior to Murder in the First, and it generally holds up pretty well. The entire series is on Hulu.

– I'm not sure if we're going to do week-to-week coverage of Murder in the First, but I have seen the next two episodes, and they're about the same quality as the pilot. The third episode may be the most 1990s-y cliché-ridden episode of the lot, but it's also the one where the narrative properly kicks off, so hopefully the fourth episode will be a bit of a humdinger.

– While I've seen the next two episodes, and thus have a little more information than you all do, I already have my guess as to who the culprit (provided there's only one) may be. Feel free to sound off with early predictions of your own in the comments.

What did you think of Murder in the First's debut? Going to stay with the case?

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