Stephen Bochco knows a lot about how to make a successful cop drama, as proven with hit shows like “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue.” His latest project, TNT”s “Murder in the First,” which he co-created with Eric Lodal, is looking to expand the boundaries of the traditional police procedural by having his detectives spend the entire ten-episode season on a single case.
Bochco tried something similar in 1995 with the legal drama “Murder One,” which utilized the same season-long case conceit for its first season. But while that one didn’t connect with viewers, times have changed on television in the last two decades. Serialized dramas have found plenty of success these days, and especially on cable.
The difference is immediate in the premiere. Whereas most crime procedurals have little time for character moments, “Murder in the First” was careful to spend plenty of personal time on key characters from both sides of the case.
Viewers got to see Kathleen Robertson’s Detective Mulligan juggle life as a single mom with her job, while Taye Diggs‘ Detective English was struggling with bringing his wife home to die. In fact, it was that story that framed the premiere episode. At the top of the hour, he brought her home for hospice care, while he got the phone call that she’d passed away in the closing moments.
Character trumps case, at least in the pilot.
Tom Felton spent years making fans love to hate him as Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” films. Now, he plays Erich Blunt, a young tech genius who finds himself in the middle of two murder case when both his father and his flight attendant/girlfriend wind up dead, in two seemingly unconnected cases.
Blunt is charismatic, arrogant, and rude, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s guilty. It does make him interesting to watch, though.
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For this to work, viewers need to be invested in the characters more than the story. Especially as the cases don’t have much going on yet, save a couple of dead bodies. Luckily, “Murder in the First” is off to a good start in that department.
While not as rich cinematically as more sophisticated fare like HBO’s “True Detective,” or even FX’s “Fargo,” Murder in the First” does feel like a classic CBS procedural that’s been spaced out to let the story breathe. Considering that those procedurals are the top-rated shows on television, that’s not a bad way to go about making a serialized crime story.