TV doesn't always have to be about doing something new. In fact, sometimes, the old and familiar can be extremely satisfying if it's done very well.
Such is the case with Murder in the First, a new cop drama that premièred last week and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on Bravo. Produced for U.S. cable's TNT network, the series takes one of TV's most reliable tropes and seeks neither to redefine nor reinvent it.
It's a cop show about cops doing cop work. And it's good.
Its quality should come as no surprise, given that it has one of the medium's most skilled producers of police and/or legal dramas, Steven Bochco, at the top of its creative-team roster sheet. Bochco's contributions to prime time during the past few decades include Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, Cop Rock (OK, they all can't be winners), Brooklyn South, L.A. Law and Murder One, and it can safely be said that his shows have done more to solidify the cop/lawyer framework than almost any others in the genre.
Murder in the First borrows its key element from Bochco's underappreciated 1995-97 drama Murder One, in that it follows a single multi-layered case throughout the season's entire 10-episode run.
At the centre of the action are homicide-squad partners Terry English and Hildy Mulligan (Taye Diggs and Hamilton, Ont., native Kathleen Robertson), veteran detectives who bring a lot of personal-life baggage to the job each day. English is trying, often unsuccessfully, to keep the emotional strain of his wife's terminal-cancer journey from affecting his work, and Mulligan scrambles daily to balance the demands of divorced-single-motherhood (complete with support-seeking layabout ex-spouse) and big-city murder investigations.
The initial scenes that establish the main characters' back stories are a bit clunky, but once Murder in the First gets down to the casework, it really starts to hum. English and Mulligan are called to a fleabag apartment in one of San Francisco's shadier neighbourhoods, where they find the freshly head-shot corpse of a junkie pimp sprawled in the corner.
At first, it seems like a simple case of a bad guy getting what was coming to him, but when they move the body, they find an iPad on which the victim seems to have written a blackmailing message, addressed to a very well-known young computer-tech billionaire.
When they visit that guy -- Erich Blunt, played by Tom Felton, best known as Harry Potter tormentor Draco Malfoy -- they get the standard "I'm very wealthy and get thousands of blackmail demands" brush-off, but there's something about his dismissive answer that prompts the detectives to dig deeper.
They find a connection that makes the dead guy's blackmail scheme both plausible and worthy of further probing, and then, when a second, seemingly unconnected murder investigation also points English and Mulligan toward Blunt, things really begin to get interesting.
Murder in the First captivates because it gets all the basic cop-show elements right. Diggs and Robertson carry most of the narrative weight, but they're surrounded by a solid supporting cast in a squad room that looks and feels authentic. The station-house scenes in Murder would not be out of place alongside episodes of NYPD Blue.
And then there's the villain. Twenty years ago, Murder One became an attention-grabber mainly because its first-season protagonist, defence lawyer Ted Hoffman (played by gruff but watchable actor Daniel Benzali) found a perfect-match nemesis in the form of Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci, in a career-making performance), a creepy multi-millionaire whom Hoffman believed was the real culprit in the murder his Hollywood-heartthrob client was alleged to have committed.
In Murder in the First, Felton immediately and effectively establishes himself as the villain, infusing Blunt with an I'm-so-rich-I'm-above-the-law smugness that will make viewers really hope he does turn out to be the killer. Even if he is, however, proving he's guilty will give the folks carrying the SFPD shields all they can handle.
If its first episode is any indication, Murder in the First should offer some legitimate appointment-TV fare during what are usually considered to be scripted drama's off-season months. Bochco and company haven't given us anything new or different, but they have delivered something familiar that's pretty darned good.