If Murder in the First had premiered on television 20 years ago, it would have been praised as an innovative drama and a refreshing take on the police procedural. In fact, co-creator Steven Bochco was also behind ABC’s 1995 Murder One, which followed a single case throughout the entire season through the eyes of the lawyers. The first season was interesting and complicated but unfortunately spread out over too many episodes (23). The similarly titled Murder in the First, debuting tonight on TNT, also follows one case (and smartly only consists of ten episodes), but the timing of the show makes this concept feel lame and overdone.
Police procedurals work because they allow us to become familiar with a core group of people — the main detectives, the cranky captain, the lawyers, etc. — and occasionally a long plot arc (sometimes a bigger case, sometimes whether or not the two hottest detectives will eventually get together), while also resetting itself every episode. New cases every week allow viewers to check in whenever (and lend themselves well to syndication; there is always an episode from the Law and Order or NCIS franchise on TV at any given time) and are great for mindless fun but rarely help to craft a truly engaging narrative. Then there are shows, like Murder in the First, that introduce one big mystery in the pilot and then spend the rest of the season trying to solve it (or sometimes, like The Killing, multiple seasons).
Whereas Murder One felt fresh in 1995, Murder in the First feels like a retelling. It’s unfortunate that the show is premiering while True Detective is still fresh in everyone’s mind, and while Fargo is still airing its first fantastic season. They all fit loosely into the same mold — though Fargo reveals the killer upfront, and we’re watching the cops try to catch up to us — and Murder in the First isn’t special enough to stand out.
For a few minutes, there is hope that it could be better. The two homicide detectives are played by Kathleen Robertson (Boss, Bates Motel) and Taye Diggs (recently seen on New Girl and among your Twitter followers). Both are great actors, and the writers have given them some nice character moments here and there. It’s the biggest things about the way their stories are written that don’t work: He is marred to a woman who is dying of cancer and she is yet another divorced single mother with a shitty ex-husband. The show frequently visits their lives outside of the precinct in an attempt to add depth to these characters, but the results are mixed. (Though it doesn’t look like Murder in the First is going to throw these two characters into a relationship, so major props for that.)
At first, the mystery is the death of a junkie who is tied to a young Silicon Valley prodigy named Erich Blunt (not to be confused with Silicon Valley‘s Erlich). Erich, played by Tom Felton (who exhibits much more menace here than he ever did as Draco Malfoy), quickly becomes too much of a stock villain. It is easy to hate Silicon Valley wunderkinds with their own private jets, and this is doubly so when Blunt’s face seems to be stuck in a cartoonishly evil expression, and when he treats women like shit. I’m glad that Murder in the First isn’t going for a somewhat likable murder suspect just to evoke a complicated response from viewers, but Blunt is too much of a caricature to work. He is practically followed around by light-up signs saying “HE’S A MURDERER” — which means the show’s twist will probably be that he’s not the murderer and it won’t be shocking at all.
But the junkie’s murder isn’t really the focus. The bigger case that’s introduced in the pilot is — get this — a pretty blonde is found dead (and naked) at the bottom of her stairs. This switch isn’t a spoiler: the poster features a blue, dead woman with “dead girls don’t talk” written over her closed eyes. She’s still gorgeous, of course — maybe it’s murder, maybe it’s Maybelline! As if Murder in the First didn’t already reek of staleness, it threw in that old trope.
I’ve only seen three of the episodes so far (and, if we’re being totally honest, could only muster up enough interest to half pay attention to the third), so maybe this show has a few tricks up its sleeve. I want to believe this is true based on Bochco’s previous cop-genre efforts, but so far? It’s not selling me at all. There are worse shows to watch this summer — and so many worse cop shows in general — and I do think this ten-episode format will greatly benefit the narrative. Still, this is one I’m going to sit out.