When Steven Bochco created “Murder One” nearly 20 years ago, the concept — a series following a single murder trial over an entire season — seemed bold and ahead of its time. Today, TV is teeming with similar fare as TNT introduces “Murder in the First,” which traces a murder investigation over 10 episodes, and has the minor misfortune to follow HBO’s genre-invigorating “True Detective.” Stripped of those contextual concerns, the previewed hours establish the series as crisp and watchable, while perhaps shrewdly shifting and expanding the earlier show’s lens from defense attorneys to the detectives assigned the case.
Shepherded by Bochco and Eric Lodal, with a Thomas Schlamme-directed pilot, “Murder” also has the advantage of feeling quite compatible with TNT’s lineup in general, and the series with which it’s being paired (“Major Crimes”) in particular. Indeed, even if the Turner network’s roster tends to skew toward meat and potatoes, it’s pretty smart about scheduling programs in a manner that enhances their shot at success, including the upcoming “The Last Ship”/“Falling Skies” combo.
“Murder” picks up with San Francisco homicide detectives English (Taye Diggs) and Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson), each grappling with ample personal baggage: English’s wife is terminally ill, while Mulligan’s a divorced mom trying to raise a kid alongside her workload. Those threads, alas, are initially the weakest elements in the show.
Soon enough, the pair catch a couple of murders, both — in rather twisted but clever fashion — leading toward the doorstep of a mercurial tech billionaire, Erich Blunt (“Harry Potter’s” Tom Felton, whose intensity causes him to dominate most every scene he’s in). Notably, the principal suspect 20 years ago was a pampered actor, just one more way Silicon Valley is elbowing out Hollywood.
Imperious and pretty sure he’s invincible, Blunt virtually taunts the cops to investigate him, much to the chagrin of his legal counsel (Richard Schiff), who urges his client to seek out a famed criminal defense attorney (James Cromwell) as a precaution. Others in the splendid, deep cast include Steven Weber as the pilot of Blunt’s private jet and Ian Anthony Dale as the detectives’ boss, who bluntly informs them he doesn’t want this to become another O.J. Simpson trial.
Actually, the only drawback of that casting is that the quality of certain actors in what appear to be peripheral roles tends to arouse suspicions about what larger purpose they might serve later on. Longtime TV watchers will also doubtless get a kick out of identifying the past Bochco players who pop up throughout, from Currie Graham to Peter Onorati.
As an interesting footnote, the original “Murder One” was supposed to follow a case over 22 episodes, before being broken up into smaller arcs.
Practically speaking, about 10 episodes feels right for this sort of exercise, offering the promise of a not-too-long-deferred payoff. All of which adds up to a mildly favorable verdict — with the disclaimer that all this could change, subject to the why and how of whodunit.