An ode to Murder One, Steven Bochco's groundbreaking legal gem
Steven Bochco did a lot of things first.
The writer-producer — who died Sunday after fighting cancer with, as his family put it in a statement, “strength, courage, grace and his unsurpassed sense of humor” — is responsible for giving us NYPD Blue, the first “R-rated drama”; his Hill Street Blues was the first show to give NBC a ratings foothold on Thursdays — a night that would eventually become the Must-See TV powerhouse; and his Cop Rock was the first (and only) police musical to flame out in such a spectacular fashion that it’s still a cultural touchstone today, nearly 30 years later.
There are, of course, too many Bochco firsts to mention them all, and as the creative force behind the series listed above — as well as L.A. Law, Doogie Howser M.D. and more — Bochco’s influence on TV cannot be overstated. But one of his most groundbreaking innovations came from a show that didn’t get name-dropped in his obituary headlines: Murder One — the critically-beloved, ratings-impaired legal drama that premiered in 1995, at the height of the O.J. Simpson trial. Starring Daniel Benzali (a frequent Bochco player who had recurring roles on NYPD Blue and L.A. Law) as powerful defense attorney Theodore Hoffman, Murder One was the first legal show to track one case over the course of an entire 23-episode season.
That may not sound like much of a risk in today’s made-to-binge TV landscape, but in 1995, Murder One’s single-case premise was downright unprecedented. Serialized TV dramas were nothing new — Blues, for one, helped bring the format into the mainstream with its successful presentation of multi-episode story arcs — but the idea of asking viewers to follow one complex homicide investigation over an entire season seemed, in a word, ambitious. “Can America pay attention for that long?” pondered EW’s Bruce Fretts a few months before Murder’s September 1995 debut. ABC was so confident in America’s attention span that it scheduled its legal gamble on Thursdays at 10 p.m., opposite NBC’s somewhat less serialized ratings juggernaut, ER. At least Bochco knew what he was up against, when it came to hooking viewers in such a competitive hour: “If we don’t get ’em early, we won’t get ’em,” he told EW in 1995.
But oh, for those of us who did get hooked early, Murder was a rush of addictive adrenaline. The homicide case in question — the rape and murder of a 15-year-old girl in a Los Angeles apartment — brings together an astounding ensemble cast that is even more breathtaking in retrospect. Stanley Tucci as Richard Cross, a silky-smooth philandering philanthropist who becomes the cops’ primary murder suspect after surveillance cameras show him leaving the victim’s building on the night of her death. Dylan Baker, using his ice-blue stare and deceptively soothing voice to chilling effect as Detective Polson. Mary McCormack as Justine Appleton, a fiercely ambitious lawyer angling for second chair in the high-profile murder case. Gregory Itzkin, TV’s foremost expert in the art of weaselly charm, as DA Roger Garfield. The perennially underrated Jason Gedrick as douchey Hollywood playboy Neil Avedon, whose drug-fueled antics test Hoffman’s patience one too many times. Donna freaking Murphy as Cross’s outwardly loyal but inwardly seething wife Francesca. (“Give a message to Richard for me,” she purrs to Hoffman after learning of her husband’s arrest. “Tell him this is going to be very expensive.”) And Benzali! The contrast of his doughy bald head — which gives him the cuddly appeal of a teddy bear — with Hoffman’s gravelly growl and poker-faced intensity puts an entertaining spin on even the most boilerplate dialogue. (See his delivery of “There’s the door — use it” in episode one.)
Though Murder One only lasted two seasons — and only made it past season 1 after an ill-advised reboot which brought in a new lead actor, Anthony LaPaglia, and multiple cases to follow — its first 23 episodes remain as masterful and compelling today as they were more than two decades ago. And did I mention you can stream them now on Hulu? Next time you need a good binge, check it out — Murder One was ahead of its time, but it is perfectly suited for ours.