Earlier this spring, the complete run of “Hill Street Blues” was released on DVD, and it was remarkable to see just how well the groundbreaking cop drama held up three decades later. Some elements of it felt dated, but on the whole, you could find common DNA with many of this century's best dramas.
That's because for a long stretch in the '80s and '90s, “Hill Street” co-creator Steven Bochco was way out ahead of the curve, experimenting with what was and wasn't possible within the confines of a broadcast network drama, and in the process paving the way for this cable golden age in which we live. “Hill Street” popularized multi-layered, morally complex serialized storytelling in primetime. “NYPD Blue” broke down the barriers between network and cable with its raw language, sexuality and criminal subject matter, and the popularity of Andy Sipowicz (who would've been a villain even on “Hill Street”) made it easier for audiences and executives to prepare for Tony Soprano. “Murder One,” a legal drama Bochco introduced in the mid-'90s, was the first network drama to try to follow a single case over an entire season.
“Murder One” was a critical darling but a commercial failure, and some other Bochco experiments didn't really work on any level (though I will occasionally hear from partisans of “Cop Rock”), but the man could see what the future of television was going to be and wrote towards it.
Time passes, tastes change, and what was once bold and can eventually risk feeling quaint. Had Bochco's new TNT series “Murder in the First” (which he created with Eric Lodal) debuted on ABC back in his heyday, it would seem an impressive experiment. In 2014, though, it's just one of many cable dramas devoting a whole season to one investigation.
The show (it debuts tonight at 10) is pretty good, though. It doesn't have the artistic pretensions of many of the other series of its type – though Bochco has worked with artists over the years, he's always been much more of a craftsman (and a hell of a salesman) – but that means it also doesn't have to live up to an overly inflated self-image. (“The Killing” says hi, while looking for its umbrella.) It's just a police procedural in serialized form, with a big mystery at the center, a brisk pace, and some familiar actors to help things along.
Check that: a lot of familiar actors. Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson play our cop heroes – he's grappling with his sick wife's impending death, she's a single mom whose dates always go awry when the guys find out what she does for a living – and they're surrounded by an absurdly deep ensemble of character actors, many of whom could have been the lead in a show like this once upon a time. Ten or 20 minutes may pass at a stretch before someone appears on screen whom you might not recognize from something, and many of the actors rise above basic Hey, It's That Guy! status. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies) is the chief suspect, a self-made billionaire who runs a San Francisco tech company. (Think of him as Evil Zuckerberg.) Richard Schiff and James Cromwell play two of his lawyers, and Steven Weber is his pilot (and when we have to go home to briefly meet his wife, she's played by Paula Marshall, in a reunion of the short-lived NBC sitcom “The Weber Show”). It feels as if each role was written with the actor they got in mind; when it's time for Diggs and Robertson to interrogate a junkie who's a suspect in a related case, Bochco and Lodal didn't get a Skinny Pete type; they got the actual Skinny Pete from “Breaking Bad” (whose friends and family know him as Charles Baker).
The descendants of “Hill Street” and “NYPD Blue” tend to work more with unknown actors, both because they're cheaper and because they don't bring baggage from other roles. But there's value to name performers, too, including a character shorthand that comes in very handy on a show with a sprawling narrative like this one. You get one look at a bearded Cromwell as Felton's defense lawyer and you'll know he's a force to be reckoned with, just as Weber goes instantly into sketchy potential suspect mode. And that's another bonus of having so many faces in the cast: anyone and everyone can be a red herring, because they didn't just hire one semi-famous actor and a bunch of others who are just getting their SAG cards.
The character beats with the heroes are as familiar as the show's ensemble, but the leads do some interesting things with them. Robertson in particular comes across as more genuinely damaged than the archetype requires, so the various scenes of her going on bad dates don't feel like filler, but like the build-up for an explosion.
The challenge of this kind of show is to come up with a satisfying payoff to the mystery, and Bochco has an iffy track record there. The one “Murder One” season that followed a single case (season 2 featured several smaller arcs in a futile attempt to boost the ratings) ended with the killer being revealed as a character who had only appeared briefly many, many episodes earlier; it fit the logic of the story but felt like a cheat. (Even some of that show's writers told me not long after that they blew the landing.) So we'll see how this ends, but I was engaged in the early going.
Once upon a time, “Murder in the First” would have blown its viewers' minds. Now – thanks in part to all the shows that have built on the foundational work Bochco did 20 and 30 years ago – it's a show with a format and execution every bit as familiar as its actors. But if the arc of Bochco's career and the evolution of TV drama has turned his fancy recipes into comfort food, it tastes good and goes down easy. Bochco's previous TNT series, the legal drama “Raising the Bar,” was so retro that it seemed as if the business had left him behind. “Murder in the First” suggests he has the capacity to adjust to changing times, even if he's no longer the one instigating the changes.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org