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Analyzing the facts in ratings-challenged ''Murder One''

Creator Steve Bochco explains what went wrong

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The first season of ABC’s Murder One is over and two verdicts are in: Lip-curling drug lord Roberto Portalegre murdered 15-year-old Jessica Costello. And Murder — probably the most praised new show this season — was creatively solid but low rated, despite the viewer boost of the April 23 season finale. So let’s wheel this baby in for a postmortem.

To me, the show’s crucial weakness — aside from scheduling opposite ER for its first two months — was its hero, bigwig-less lawyer Ted Hoffman, played by Daniel Benzali. As the season progressed, Benzali became a one-note bore who couldn’t compete with his large cast of secondary actors, most notably Stanley Tucci, extraordinary as charismatic villain Richard Cross, and Mary McCormack, the law firm’s complex conniver Justine Appleton.

But what does executive producer and cocreator Steven Bochco think? Were disappointing ratings the result of network ambivalence, or deficiencies in plot or casting? Well, according to the exec producer, it was the expectations caused by media overhype. ”There’s no doubt in my mind,” says Bochco. ”When I saw that first wave of rave reviews, it made me nervous, quite frankly. Because that’s the way you guys in the press always behave with something new: You overreact, then correct yourselves, usually by going to the other extreme, and the show gets blamed for flaws it didn’t have.”

Such as?

”Such as the very prevalent perception that if a viewer missed a week or two, he or she would be completely lost. That was never the case, but when something becomes widely perceived, it becomes true.”

Bochco has another intriguing suspicion why Murder didn’t become an instant phenomenon, a la his previous show, NYPD Blue. ”There are people who like process — all the intricate details about something — and there are people who like results. Murder One was a show for people who like process, who get caught up in following the convolutions of a murder trial.” Apparently there weren’t enough process freaks out there to turn Murder into a hit.

If the show returns next season, Bochco says, it will follow two, not one, trials. Any other changes in the offing? ”I’ve had conversations with ABC” is all Bochco will say, in addition to flatly denying rumors that Murder One, if dropped by ABC, could be shopped to CBS, where he has a production deal. ”If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this business, whether you’re being criticized or praised to the skies,” Bochco says, ”you should just shut your mouth and do your work.” Well, then, ’nuff said, Steve.