In its sophomore year, “Murder One” promises to introduce as many as three homicides simultaneously instead of a single murder trial from start to finish through 22 episodes. While the conceptually revised show will stretch storylines out over several weeks, a long-term commitment isn’t necessary on the first date. But the quality of writing, new star Anthony LaPaglia’s perfect handle on a likably ragged character and a twist in the first act will surely make viewers want to return to find out where it all will lead.
The first season of Steven Bochco’s “Murder One” was rocky, to say the least: Critics loved the cast and admired the concept of following a single case. Viewers were cooler (maybe because they already had in the People vs. O.J. Simpson one real-life courtroom drama spreading its minutiae endlessly across the weeks; maybe because the competition was “E.R.”).
The show opens with LaPaglia’s James Wyler, a hot dog in the D.A.’s office, making mincemeat of a cop on trial for brutalizing a man who made the mistake of driving with a broken muffler and having a vowel at the end of his surname. When D.A. and would-be governor Roger Garfield (Gregory Itzin) passes Wyler over for Miriam Grasso (Barbara Bosson) as head of the homicide unit, Wyler fumes.
And when the incumbent governor is found murdered with his mistress in a seaside love nest, Wyler sees an opportunity in the fragile woman (Missy Crider) accused of the crime. Virtually without financial resources, he takes over the firm previously run by that shaven-headed enigma Teddy Hoffman, played by Daniel Benzali (who split after a season; the book on Teddy is that he has left the firm for personal reasons). The young associates in the firm are eager for a rainmaker like Wyler; a high-profile case like this fits the bill.
Wyler’s a first-class seducer, a good guy with a devil on his shoulder. He convinces the suicidal suspect to trust him; lures the young black public defender (Aaron Mosely), who should have gotten the case, to sign on with the firm; wins over Chris Docknovich (Michael Hayden) and on instinct makes Justine Appleton (Mary McCormack) his No. 2 in the trial, as he takes over the corner office with the big windows. He even managers — so far, at least — to stay on good terms with Miriam.
In the time-honored Sam Spade tradition, he snubs a rich man (Ralph Waite) who wants to buy him off with a cushy retainer he can ill afford to turn down. In the contemporary tradition, he is blessed with a ballsy mother (Eileen Heckart, in top form).
James Wyler gives “Murder One” a very different resonance than it had last year, and some will undoubtedly miss both Benzali and Teddy Hoffman. But the series is reborn as a well-paced, solidly plotted show, with LaPaglia giving it a whole new spin. It may not murder the competing Seinfeld & Co., but it promises to be the first comer to give those clowns a run for their money.