Even when he fails, Steven Bochco is always ambitious in his TV projects - be it a colossal misstep like "Cop Rock," or an underappreciated gem like "Murder One," Bochco's products are unlike anything else on TV. It's a shame "Murder One" did not catch on, as it had the promise to be a long-running success. But it premiered at a time when audiences were out of love with season-running story arcs and stiff competition put "Murder One" out to pasture before its time.
The idea of tracking a single murder trial over the course of the TV season doesn't sound as revolutionary today, but in 1995 it was a bold move. Even bolder was Bochco's decision to focus the show on a "James Bond" defense attorney in the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial, where the public was evenly divided on the theatrics of Simpson's "Dream Team." But "Murder One" worked, thanks to the storyline, the production and the tour-de-force performance of Daniel Benzali as Theodore "Teddy" Hoffman, the man you want in your corner if you're ever facing a murder charge.
No one gets short shift in the cast...all of Ted's associates, his administrative assistant, the judge, the suspects and the wonderful Barbara Bosson as Miriam Grasso all have their moments to shine and their talents combine to create a rich tapestry of characterization that drives the action.
But the standouts of the Season 1 cast are Daniel Benzali and Stanley Tucci. Essentially the forces of good and evil in "Murder One," their confrontations and dialogues always crackle, even when the energy level seems to be low. Benzali unleashes torrents of rage from his quiet rasp, and Stanley Tucci is charmingly deceitful (not unlike the Devil himself) as Cross, a man who revels in the dance of suspicion so much that he makes sure he insinuates himself into the case. Tucci has enjoyed a career flourish since "Murder One," with awards, movies and recurring roles on TV, but sadly Benzali has faded away. It's a shame - somebody needs to get him back on the screen as soon as possible.
Many people think the show jumped the shark with Season 2. I disagree - I don't think Season 2 is better or worse. It's different, but a continuation of what was set up the previous year. Benzali left, but Bochco didn't, and the caliber of the writing and the production values are still strong. Just because there are three stories doesn't change the fact that each story is compelling in its own right. In fact, this "mini-arc" strategy is more successful than the one year, one case plan. Despite it's strengths, the Avedon case did drag at midseason before picking up steam. Here, the writers get several episodes to create a powerful story, but aren't forced to pad it out to get to 23 episodes. Anthony LaPaglia, like Daniel Benzali, is an unconventional TV leading man and like Ted Hoffman, Jimmy Wyler is a complex character who evolves as the season progresses. I found his journey, along with his rivalries with Roger Garfield and others, were as riveting as the Hoffman/Cross duels in Season 1.
Fortunately, "Murder One" is on DVD, and that's the medium that suits it best. You can watch several episodes in a row, keep track of the players and savor the experience without network interference and hiatus. A classic, done in before it was due...but it left behind some great TV drama.