"We know accused people aren't always innocent -- maybe not even usually innocent -- and even though we know that, we treat people like they're innocent until they've had their shot in court, because it makes us better people. It civilizes us to treat them that way." - Theodore Hoffman
In January of 1981, Stephen Bochco challenged American television audiences with the powerful premiere episode of Hill Street Blues. Almost 25 years later, not a television season has passed without at least one major Bochco-created series on the air in primetime, each one daring executives and viewers to step outside traditional expectations and elevate the medium to something more. Sometimes these efforts were met with resounding success both in ratings and critical praise, while other times viewers completely rejected his innovative ideas (e.g. the legendary Cop Rock); but through success and failure, television has been forever changed by the quality he has produced and the outdated barriers he has torn down along the way.
With L.A. Law off the air in 1995 and NYPD Blue safely in the hands of co-creator David Milch, Bochco once again sought to elevate the standards of television with the incredibly detailed and realistic Murder One. For 23 episodes, viewers followed a single murder trial predominantly through the perspective of the lead defense attorney but also focusing heavily on every other element that such a trial entails. Through evidentiary hearings to jury selection to the appeals process, from the inner-office politics of a high-priced defense firm to the very public politics of the District Attorney's office, every detail of a criminal trial was examined. It was daring and powerful and intelligent and even educational, and apparently it was just too much to ask of the American viewing audience. ABC's decision to air it in NYPD Blue's timeslot for a few weeks seemed logical, but after three episodes, it was moved against the most popular drama of the 1990's (E.R.) where it was predictably squashed and moved yet again to Monday nights after the end of the football season. While ABC had faith in its greatness, even attempting to get it off the ground for a second season, viewers either never found the show or lost track of it as it bounced around, and one of the most innovative dramatic series in the legal genre was doomed to relative obscurity. Nearly a decade later, all 23 episodes from the original ground-breaking season (including one that did not air during the original run) are released in "Murder One: The Complete First Season."
Theodore "Ted" Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) is Los Angeles's most powerful criminal defense attorney, and his firm caters to the city's most elite clientele. He is an honorable man who resists the temptation to violate the ethics of professional conduct, but he does know how to work the system and leverages every legal technique he can to defend his high-profile clients. One of those clients is billionaire entrepreneur and philanthropist Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), a man whose wealth and connections have gained him considerable influence with the law and whose affiliation with Hoffman's firm is more tangential through his many trouble-making friends and associates who often enlist Hoffman's services. However, when the younger sister of Cross's mistress turns up dead in one of his many real estate properties, the lead detective pegs him as the primary suspect, and he needs Ted's direct assistance as a defense attorney. Almost immediately after being arraigned, though, an airtight alibi shows up out of nowhere, and the case against Cross is dismissed leading the police to find a new suspect: Neil Avadon (Jason Gedrick), a television superstar whose first feature film is about to open. To Hoffman's dismay, Cross demands the firm represent Avadon as well, despite the conflict of interest, understanding that their primary objective will be to paint Cross himself as the real killer. Ted reluctantly agrees, and so begins the story.
Murder One exists on many different levels and is a pretty sizeable departure from the traditional courtroom drama. Appropriately labeled as such, each episode unfolds like chapters in a novel, and there is no formula to what will happen in a given segment other than the steady and logical advancement of the plot and the principle trial. The only hint of a formula comes in some of the early episodes where the defense and prosecution are still gathering evidence and building their cases. To offset the main story in these episodes, as well as provide some episodic resolution to avoid running off viewers at the beginning, members of the defense team engage in smaller cases that run concurrently to Avadon's trial and are introduced and concluded within a single episode. By the time the trial gets underway, though, the case-in-chief dominates the action, and these smaller, often light-hearted, side stories fade away in favor of the main story arc.
For the primary trial, nearly every aspect of the process is paid serious attention, and it is all handled in a very realistic manner. In fact, two entire episodes are devoted almost exclusively to voir dire (jury selection), and the psychology and strategy involved is really quite compelling. Perhaps what is most impressive about the series is the writing surrounding some of these more procedural aspects of the trial. While everything maintains a high level of realism throughout (counselors referring to their notes during trial, no confessional outbursts on the witness stand, etc), the episodes are so well constructed that it never becomes dull.
One of the ways this is accomplished is using television footage from "Law TV" as somewhat of a narrative device. Because it's a celebrity trial, tabloid shows like "Deadline: America" and 24-hour law channel "Law TV" are heavily covering the show, trying to dig up information and interview "experts" about the status of the trial. Without leaning on it too heavily, Murder One creatively utilizes this device to keep viewers up to date with what is going on at different stages of the trial and keep them from getting too lost in unfamiliar territory. It works very well and keeps the show flowing between the episodes.
Another area in which Murder One succeeds is through some truly fantastic casting. Junie Lowry-Johnson is one of the best casting directors working in television today, and her skills really shine with both the primary cast as well as the guest stars. Anyone who recognized the kid from Iron Eagle could handle such a dynamic performance as that of Neil Avadon deserves my respect, and Jason Gedrick really sells the character. Bochco and company are known for reusing dependable actors across multiple different series, and it's near impossible to imagine how this show would have been as strong without the great performances of Benzali (from L.A. Law and NYPD Blue) and Barbara Bosson (Bochco's wife and fixture in many of his shows) as the assistant district attorney and lead prosecutor on the case. There is a real level of respect between these two opposing parties and a recognition that they are both essential pieces in a system of justice in which they both strongly believe. While they both want to win their case, neither wants to sabotage the other or see the other fail. It is a great relationship and one that is rarely seen in legal dramas, and the chemistry between Benzali and Bosson is one of the uniquely strong elements that set this series apart from so many others.
It is also difficult to imagine anyone else in the role of Richard Cross other than Stanley Tucci. Quite simply, his performance is brilliant throughout the entire series, and the audience is forced to love him and fear him at the same time, wondering what on Earth he is up to until the closing scenes of the final episode. He steals entire scenes just by the way he enters a room and calmly refers to Hoffman as "Teddy", and he is one of the driving forces behind the show's success. Also giving an amazing performance as always is Patricia Clarkson as Hoffman's wife Annie. A long public trial like the one featured in the first season wreaks emotional havoc on the families of those involved, and Clarkson really brings that to the screen being both supportive of and at the same time very frustrated with her husband as his job responsibilities keep him away from his family and force them to live their lives in a relative fishbowl. Finally, Linda Carlson is perfect as the presiding judge. Often there isn't very much for a judge to do in a courtroom drama, but since Murder One delves into so many aspects of the trial process, she is a major character in many episodes and is the glue that holds the most of the legal scenes together.
In spite of the praise I have lavished on the show to this point, it is certainly not without its flaws. The largest drawback is a truly convoluted plot with numerous twists and turns. It's understandable how the show developed this way, trying to include so many aspects of a trial and keep the audience interested, but there are some points where it seems just a little far-fetched how all of these characters are connected to one another. Also, while most of the characters and performances are fantastic, the character of Julie Costello (Bobbie Phillips) never comes across as authentic. She is beautiful to look at to be sure, but the character is very uneven, and some of the developments relating to her ring a bit hollow. Much the same can be said for Francesca Cross (Donna Murphy) as well. I really enjoy Murphy as an actress, but the character is somewhat superfluous, and her history with Ted Hoffman is an unnecessary piece to an already convoluted puzzle.
Another fault is one that becomes more pronounced and annoying on this DVD release. When the episodes originally aired, they were at least a week apart and sometimes in shifting timeslots, so the "previously on" segments needed to be fairly detailed in case someone was joining the series for the first time. In early episodes, these segments are pretty reasonable, but by the halfway point, they have really gotten out of hand, attaching silly epithets to the characters and situations and having the ABC dramatic voice oversimplify the show's plot. Unlike typical "previously on" segments, it's way more than just a few relevant clips, and with each episode it gets progressively longer and more annoying. While I appreciate the effort to include all the material on the DVD, and I understand why it was like this during the original airing, it still takes away from the viewing experience, especially during back-to-back viewing, and I grew quite tired of it after a full season's worth.
On the whole, though, these faults are minor, and while Murder One struggled for ratings, it stands strong as one of the more uniquely daring television experiments to hit the airwaves. Viewers were not ready for this type of show, and considering the way a brilliant series like The Wire struggles for viewers, I wonder if they ever will be. On DVD, however, hopefully it will find a new audience and a new crop of viewers scratching their heads wondering why such a compelling show could not survive.
Murder One is presented in the standard Fox release format and is spread across six single-sided discs. Three mini-cases hold two discs each and slide into a sturdy cardboard slipcase that is almost exactly an inch thick. One nice detail is the cover of the case, which is designed to look somewhat like a body-bag with an embossed zipper and coroner's tag. Another thing I like is that the two discs packaged together in each mini-case line up in such a way that the words "MURDER ONE" span the two of them when exposed.
As they originally aired, each episode is in a full frame aspect ratio, and the image quality could best be described as below average. Edge enhancement is present in scenes with significantly contrasting colors, but it's not much of a distraction. What is distracting, however, is the print quality, which exhibits quite a bit of dust in some episodes and a surprising amount of artifacting. With a bit rate averaging around 5.5 Mb/s for each episode, it seems possible that these are flaws with the source material more than the compression, but either way it's not as good as I had hoped. However, since most of these flaws are prevalent during outdoor scenes and because so much of the action takes place within the confines off Hoffman's offices and the courtroom, it is far less a drawback than it could have been. For example, the exterior shots of the rigid office building exhibit significant aliasing, but since those shots are used only for scene transitions, it's only a minor annoyance. The aliasing on the Venetian blinds in Hoffman's office is also really bad, and that gets to be annoying, as do the distortions in some of the striped shirts. Despite all the flaws, the courtroom shots look pretty good, with colors that are relatively well balanced, and the action in the darkly lit offices is clearly visible.
The audio presentation is in Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, and it is simply adequate. This is such a dialogue-driven show that there's hardly anything else going on other than the primary dialogue and some periodic theme music. While there is nothing special about this presentation, the audio is quite clear, and scenes where characters are whispering or struggling to talk come through very cleanly. As noted, the audio is adequate, and for a show like this, I'm not sure how much more could be expected.
One major annoyance manifests itself in the menu structure. Each disc has a basic root menu with selections for each of the episodes on that disc, and running in the background are clips from the show. However, many of these clips are a bit heavy on the spoilers, and if I hadn't seen the series before, I could imagine I'd be pretty unhappy with some of the revelations. Accepting that I am far more sensitive to spoilers than the average viewer, I recognize this will affect each viewer differently. To put your mind ease, none of the truly major plot points are spoiled, just some of the smaller ones in the episodes on the disc in question. Also, as with all too many sets, there isn't any kind of "play all" function, so the user has to navigate out of the previous menu and into the next for each episode, which proves frustrating when you just want to watch a bunch of episodes in succession.
WHISTLES & BELLS:
I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of additional features on this set, as the box gives no indication of their presence. Two of the episodes ("Chapter 8" and "Chapter 15") contain audio commentaries, the former with star Jason Gedrick (Neil Avadon) and the latter with director Randy Zisk. Sadly, neither of these is very good. Gedrick rambles a bit about how the show was great to do and how smoking hot Bobbie Phillips is, but there's hardly anything of substance in the effort. Zisk's attempt is more successful as he talks about some of the production techniques, but it's probably only of interest to the most diehard fans.
On the sixth disc of the set is a 25-minute featurette titled "Making the Case: Season One". Editing together recent interview footage with many of the show's stars, it is actually quite informative and thoroughly entertaining. While not every actor or producer is present, enough of the principle players share their input to give it some weight and make it worth watching. By the way, check out the typo on the screenshot.
Television is often so bland and unimaginative, copying a formula and beating it to death until the next great formula presents itself for everyone to clone. Even Bochco's most popular series exhibit some of these characteristics. Murder One threw all of that out the window and sought to give audiences something really unique and special, telling one complete murder trial from start to finish over the course of a single season. It was a daunting task, and it wasn't always a success, but on the whole, it tells a compelling story with a high emphasis on realism set against the fascinating detail of the American criminal justice system. Watching it through in its entirety for the third time while reviewing this set, I was struck by how captivated I was, even knowing the outcome. Not everyone will find this series as intriguing as I did, but if you are not familiar with the show, and you enjoy the high quality work from people in the genre like Stephen Bochco and Dick Wolf, I think you should definitely check out this set. As for current fans of the series, there isn't much additional material here, but it is certainly better than those VHS copies you've had in your basement for the last 10 years. Recommended.