If we leave aside exceptions like Twin Peaks, The X-Files and Homicide: Life on the Street, I’ll agree with the pop dogma that the best American dramatic series in the past 15 years owe much to the HBO renaissance, which stormed U.S. television around the turn of the millennium, bled into other channels, and gave us a decade of marvels. Previous to that, Steven Bochco was hailed as the God of Dramatic TV, but most of what Bochco produced for network television still had that taint of TV writing, which panders to viewers who can’t follow a plot-line unless it’s larded with clichés. The writing isn’t quite right, as if an originally strong script was usurped by a suit-goon who believed good television required more predictability, less politics, and canned dialogue. Bochco’s stuff was fine, the way a brackish pond in the desert looks fine when you’re parched. But having escaped the sands, our expectations are so high now that we can barely recall why we celebrated someone as formulaic as Bochco in the first place. However lo-fi his catalogue registers in hindsight, though, let’s consider the Phenomenon of the Curve; if it hadn’t been for his raising the bar in the 1980s and ’90s with Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, would HBO have even dreamed of blowing the bar off its moorings in the Aughts? It may be crushing to overlook more deserving shows that recently emerged, but Bochco — as a risk-taker — deserves props for hacking a trail up the Slope of Standards, even if he exhausted himself at the halfway point.
I wasn’t much of a Bochco-ite, but one show squats on my longtime favorites list. “NYPD Blue” may have snared the glory back in the day, but his most layered work was a short-lived ABC series which few saw during its 1995-96 airing. Like Twin Peaks (and, years later, The Wire), Murder One suffered from low viewer retention because it focused on a single investigation for an entire season. Attempting to tune into the series three or seven episodes in resulted in confusion or annoyance, and failed to imbue what was onscreen with its full richness; too many nuances were lost. The brazen one-case superstructure isn’t the only thing Murder One has in common with Twin Peaks: Both series revolve around the murder of a pretty teenage girl who, we learn, lacked an innocent nougat center and ran with a sex-and-drugs crowd after hours; both feature videotapes of the victim, played over and over for pathos; both murders are tangled up with marital affairs, misguided parenting, and abusive lovers; and both series hemorrhaged viewers due to their complex storylines and suffered slow, second-season deaths when networks fatally tinkered in an attempt to win back Johnny Lunchbox and Sally Housecoat. (The less said about the second season, the better; it became a completely different show.) While Murder One is set in the logical, natural world, its first season possesses a small degree of the dreamlike tint of Twin Peaks — that not-quite-real-world texture that haunts the shadows but, in this show, is a potential that breathes all over the set but never fully manifests.
The action takes place in a Los Angeles rarely depicted on TV, where the sun and sky are rarely seen. It’s an interior world of oppressive ceilings and dark corners — an environment that could stand in for Anywhere, USA, if it weren’t for the presence of nearby Hollywood (which figures in the mystery). The series’ cockpit is Hoffman and Associates, a premier law firm that keeps VIPs out of jail with average-defying success. The firm’s only senior counsel is Theodore Hoffman, who’s gathered a roost of young attorneys to groom and guide and remind who’s boss. Partnership is dangled in front of them, but Hoffman’s not eager — or even likely — to promote them; he loves his own authority too much and wallows in his absolute power. That’s not to say he isn’t a terrific mentor. The younger lawyers idolize him and hang on his every word, and he manages them with a steady sort of tough love that glows with affection. The team is tested to its limit when first one longtime client (a wealthy philanthropist) then another (a playboy Hollywood A-lister) are brought up on charges for the same murder, and tried by the public long before the jury sits.
Murder One may be yet another legal drama, but it aired before we began to suffer symptoms of law-show fatigue hastened by the David E. Kelley onslaught. The series’ immediate inspiration wasn’t other legal dramas but the recent OJ Simpson trial, and the way that trial harked back to the days of execution broadsheets, which transformed justice into entertainment. Murder One plays with many themes — ambition, civility, negotiation, and the lack of trust between individuals and institutions — but its favorite chew-toy is the way justice, in certain historical moments, is packaged like a consumer product and disseminated through the media with an enticing crust of fiction. This is something we’ve been educated about extensively since the Simpson trial, but the mid-1990s American public — according to pundits, anyway — was still coming to grips with the fact. Murder One taps into that anxiety with relish and remains one of the best artistic examinations of the phenomenon.
The main defendant is a Hollywood heartthrob named Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick), who acts for the cops and the court as much as he does for the camera. His contrition over an earlier misdemeanor is a true performance, which over the course of the season crystallizes into genuine remorse. Bochco lets the camera trace Avedon’s palette of false emotions so that we’re reminded, early on, that this particular case centres on a figure who entertains and bluffs for a living. The media’s distorting effects on “truth” are on parade; the story features not one but five videotapes (four of them sex tapes), which are relied on as evidence even as they’re set up as possible fakes. Several scenes are viewed through the flatness of videotape — action is filtered through news footage or segments from Law TV (a 24-hour legal network that satirizes Court TV). There are debates about the reliability of videotape and the seemliness of cameras in a working courtroom; there are references to the Zapruder and Rodney King reels; a Barbara Walters knockoff gets an exclusive interview with Avedon; the real Larry King interviews Murder One characters. The lines between reality and fiction blur, which is appropriate to any major trial, and we’re hammered with reminders that justice is a primetime ticket and or a watercooler diversion before it’s anything else.
Sewn into the sly commentary is plenty of pomp and scandal. Avedon’s case is threatened when allegations of sexual cruelty surface. Not only has he been charged with strangling a swan, he’s also been caught on tape choking his lovers to heighten orgasm. None of this escapes the prosecution when the strangled body of a 15-year-old girl who ran with Avedon is found at the foot of a bed. The victim has an older sister named Julie Costello (Bobbie Phillips), a one-time hooker now earning her keep as the mistress of another murder suspect. Julie is a locus for the show’s whirl of prostitution, porn, adultery, and violence against women but, despite her past and her bimbo’s lisp, she absorbs a lot of audience sympathy that should be aimed at Avedon. It’s a testament to the show’s writers and actors when a stereotype like the heart-of-gold hooker roils with depth, and when the supposedly charismatic mega-star defendant is so detestable. Gedrick is perfectly cast because he comes with his own prefab skin of slick phoniness that suits the cringing, shallow Avedon; when he rubs you the wrong way (and he will), depend on it that he’s meant to.
Hoffman’s pack of legal beagles is charged with saving Avedon’s greasy ass. The team includes Justine Appleton (Mary McCormack), whose ambition is a gleam in her eyes and her bright blond hair; Arnold Spivak (J.C. MacKenzie), nasal, awkward and efficient; Lisa Gillespie (Grace Phillips), Hoffman’s perfectly mannered blue-eyed girl; and Chris Docknovich (Michael Hayden), whose capability belies his frat-boy shell. They are all outstanding in their jobs thanks to Hoffman’s eye for potential and his relentless honing. Over the course of the season, Justine chomps at the bit until she bleeds, Arnold morphs into a lady’s man, Lisa endures physical threats and never wrinkles, and Chris proves his mettle as Hoffman’s second at the Defense table. Lisa and Chris are so coolly professional that they’re almost bland; it’s safe to say that, of the four, the erring Justine and Arnold have our hearts, emit the most character energy, and arc gradually as the story evolves.
But the show belongs to their boss, animated by the unsung Daniel Benzali, whose Ted Hoffman is Attorney embodied in the flesh. He’s not so much a man as he is a force; a wall between his clients and the media, crowds and law; a mass of know-how with eyes that shift from twinkling assurance to ice-cold disdain all too quickly. Benzali’s portrayal of Hoffman is one of the most intense performances ever put on TV — too intense for some viewers, if you believe the lore — and richly complex. Hoffman is cut down the middle with paradox; he seems principled and calculating at once, and he can go soft and daddy when he wants to — when he isn’t rolling heads. His presence expands beyond the screen, glowing with the kind of phantom authority Burke believed humans naturally tend to revere. His intimates call him “Teddy” and, with his chubby cheeks and floppy ears, he looks as docile as a Gund from a distance, but in truth he’s a Kodiak. His unnerving stare pins his opponents in place, and his Godfather voice channels subdued threat. Benzali’s Hoffman has a place in the annals of TV history. He’s created a spellbinding and contentious character, and so full that (legend has it) producers feared he’d scared away the viewers and replaced him with a more accessible Anthony LaPaglia in Season Two. I understand why some viewers can’t stomach Benzali-Hoffman, but I bow to his meaty aura, the steady expertise radiating out of the character, and the bravura, on the part of the actor, for pulsing beyond the conformity of television acting and characterization. This isn’t scenery-chewing; Benzali’s Hoffman is too still and reticent for Scorsese-esque antics, and what he does with a silence will stand your hair on end.
Hoffman is half of one of TV’s darkest rivalries. The other half is Richard Cross, played by Stanley Tucci. If Hoffman’s Benzali is intense, Tucci’s Cross is downright arresting, and fans should go out of their way to see the show, because Tucci’s delivery of Richard Cross still stands as his peak performance (the small screen of it notwithstanding). When the victim’s body is found in his mistress’s apartment, Cross is arrested for the murder until Avedon takes his place. Once freed, Cross’s meddling in the case has a sinister cast. His fringed black eyes and tight, enigmatic smile can’t conceal the fact of a motive, even if the motive itself is cryptic. Tucci’s Cross is a composite villain; what might have been just another Mephistophelean caricature becomes a masterpiece of subtleties in his hands. Power and entitlement waft off him, but his tie-pinned façade is poxed by shiftiness: he glances at doors to make sure they’re closed before he speaks; he constantly gauges his surroundings; he anticipates antagonists’ words and moods before he strikes. Hoffman’s assistant Louis (John Fleck) calls him the Prince of Darkness who carries the smell of sulphur and the lure of bargains into the law firm with every visit. When Cross takes the witness stand towards season’s end, the true depths of his complexity are revealed and — I guarantee it — we’re handed a cross-examination unlike anything ever put on TV.
The gooiest rivalries are the ones that exist between ex-friends or associates, and Hoffman and Cross go back 11 years’ worth of Christmas cards. The two men dance all season long — Hoffman almost iridescent with light-shine, and Cross darting black glances out of the shadows he carries around with him. Each tries to out-manipulate the other in an epic battle that takes place in corporate suites and justice halls. Each builds mazes of facts around the truth as the other man sees it, and wounds the other with restrained civility or the damning content of manila folders. As the alpha dogs joust, and as minor, one- or two-episode cases flesh out the series, audiences are treated to the most in-depth fiction of a juridical procedure ever produced up to that point. The actual trial doesn’t start until Chapter 12, after multi-episode struggles over bail, preliminaries and jury selection. I’m neither a lawyer nor an American, so I have no idea how accurate the juridical details are. But realism be damned. What makes this show great is the way it handles the stuff of visual fiction: story, theme, detail, characterization, and production design. The chocolate hues and warm lighting of Murder One are eye candy we’re seldom treated to in TV land, and they contribute to the show’s dream-like feel, and to our impression that some sportive, evil force has seeped into mundane events.
Tucci and Benzali are the season’s booster rockets, but they aren’t the only TV-transcending actors onboard. Patricia Clarkson coddles the screen as Hoffman’s wife Annie, who (I’m theorizing) brings her own nimbus of light to every set she works. She’s never been more beautifully lit, which suits her role as a support ‘bot who preserves Hoffman’s refuge from the world. Most of the early episodes end with Hoffman going home to be fed and nurtured by his angel in the house, until she flies her pigeon-hole in disgust. Dylan Baker shows up as the main detective on the case, and Joe Spano is outstanding as the law firm’s in-house investigator. “Murder One” boasts some recognizable faces (Brittany Murphy, Tia Carrere, Vanessa Williams, Neal McDonough, Miguel Sandoval), but some of its best performances come from lesser-known actors like Barbara Bosson as the prosecuting attorney, Donna Murphy as Cross’ suffering wife, and Stanley Kamel as Dr. Graham Lester (the other snake in L.A.’s garden of Eden). These are the actors who, along with Benzali, Tucci, Clarkson and Spano, give this show its texture and populate the screen with three-dimensional personalities. I could devote a paragraph to each of these characters — there’s so much to say about this season, and so much going on — but I’ve already dumped a freaking treatise on you. Thumbnails will have to stand in for canvases, and readers will have to go on trust.
Murder One is as much a murder mystery as it is a legal drama. It’s a great whodunit, so tangled and manipulative that I’ve forgotten who the killer is twice, now, over the course of my three viewings since the show originally aired. I keep getting waylaid by second guesses and false memory — the mystery is that dense. It’s also inlaid with a medieval morality play; there are deities and demons lurking in Los Angeles, and all the other expected types: the devil (Richard Cross), the saint (Annie Hoffman), the penitent (Neil Avedon), and the whore (Julie Costello). The Faust legend generates a lot of heat as it boils at the core of the story; if dreamers have to sell their souls to make it in L.A., men like Richard Cross are there to help them along. This motif steams to the surface in Chapter 9 when Cross tempts Justine to cross Hoffman, using her ambition and her love of art to lure her to the dark side. He asks her to fly to Amsterdam to bid on a painting on his behalf, tapping into Justine’s dreams and threatening her professional soul. The show’s writers lob us smack against their Faustian trope by bringing up Hans Holbein the Younger, a Renaissance painter who — like the season’s DoP, Aaron Schneider — had a gift for brushing shadows across his canvas. “No one did darkness like Holbein,” Cross leers at Justine, and for a moment the Faust allusion and the morality play motif surface and fuse character with the story’s heritage and art direction.
My pick for one of the best seasons of TV in the past 20 years is a product of its time, and it can be a little over-dramatic (cue theme music), but it doesn’t suffer from the self-importance of Bochco’s other (dramatic) work thanks to a playfulness that counterweighs the odd TV-land styling; the producers had a blast crafting this season, and it shows. It also has real, pungent atmosphere — so rare in television — which makes up for a couple of weak spots (the kidnapping of Hoffman’s daughter, the Annie Wilkes stalker arc); and you can’t convince me that, even in the midst of weak spots, Bochco isn’t deliberately laying on the cheek, like when he captures a Hoffman/Cross handshake in slow motion. That playfulness redeems the missteps, and viewers should have fun watching old balls get juggled in new ways. What I’m offering readers may not be an HBO masterpiece — still fresh-looking in its relative youth — but it does have Stanley (fucking) Tucci, Patricia Clarkson, the inimitable Benzali, beautiful lighting and production design, and an addictive admixture of character, mystery, soap, and delicious literary allusion. Even in 2008, you could do a hell of a lot worse. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published as part of Pajiba.com’s The Best 15 Seasons of the Past 20 Years series, on May 27, 2008.)