Unlike what comes out of most courtrooms, everything you’ve heard about “Murder One” is true. Steven Bochco’s latest drama is indeed the class act of the 1995-96 season’s rookies — a tightly written, engrossing drama as notable for the enormously compelling presence of star Daniel Benzali as the audacity of its premise. ABC is giving the show a flying leap at its Thursday competition, “ER,” with three Tuesday airings, though the best bet for the series would still be a change of venue.
Granted, it’s hard to believe that a significant portion of those who sample the show won’t get hooked, but the ferocious loyalty of women to “ER” — and the lack of a lead-in — will doubtless limit “Murder’s” prospects on Thursdays. The mid-to high-teen share ABC is hoping for appears within reach, but the series could just as easily wind up in the low teens, leaving ABC with a real headache about what to do with another high-quality drama.
Though much will be made of parallels to the O.J. Simpson trial, the show’s behind-the-scenes look at a single high-profile trial over the course of a season quickly establishes a case on its own merits — providing a glimpse into private lives of the rich and powerful as well as the complexity of such proceedings.
Benzali plays Ted Hoffman, a superstar defense attorney who handles clients like Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick), a shining young star prone to doing things like getting loaded and strangling a swan at the Bel-Air Hotel.
After bailing out and then chewing out Avedon, Hoffman is visited by tycoon Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), who informs him that his girlfriend’s teenage sister was murdered the night before in a building he owns. Beyond the fact that he’s married, it’s obvious Cross is holding something back, with the investigation conducted by a tight-lipped detective (Dylan Baker) who harbors a grudge against Hoffman.
With speculation that Cross will be charged, Hoffman’s young associates line up to land “second chair” in the trial, demonstrating their naked ambition to share the spotlight. Hoffman, meanwhile, is disarmingly shown to be a family man, as his wife (Patricia Clarkson) frets about such a case turning into a media circus.
As with all Bochco series, what initially and ultimately sets apart “Murder One” is the quality of the writing and intricacy of the characters. Very little is black-and-white here; rather, the show deals in shades that may ultimately work to the series’ detriment commercially (in “ER” we know who the good guys are) but which are nevertheless dramatically riveting.
Someone in the D.A.’s office or police department, for example, leaks a damaging tape to the media, who swarm around the case like locusts. For his part, Hoffman plays that game as well, making sweeping courthouse-step pronouncements that are more interesting given that the audience is privy to what he’s actually thinking.
After a guest stint on “NYPD Blue,” Benzali — snarling lines like “There’s the door. Use it.” — appears both an unlikely and inevitable television star. Tucci is also a perfect choice as Cross, with Baker, as Det. Polson, and Bobbie Phillips, as Cross’ girlfriend, also standing out with strong performances.
The show is generally well cast, the one drawback in the pilot being that other characters around the law firm have yet to establish themselves, in part because Benzali is such a commanding personality.
“Murder One” is also technically superb, from the main title sequence and Mike Post’s terrific score to Charles Haid’s direction and Aaron E. Schneider’s camera-work. Whether or not the series can survive its time-period trial, Bochco and company have let loose another killer.