Murder One: Case One Review
Murder One is television for connoisseurs, a remarkable and revolutionary series which broke every rule of American TV, written and otherwise, and paid the price of, first, emasculation and, finally, cancellation. But the first series is a 23 episode work of art; a complex, finely honed portrait of a world where every legal and moral certainty is turned on its head. Characters develop and change with the natural ease of real life, moral issues are examined without excessive sermonising and the legal processes of a country are weighed in the balance and found wanting.
This show, developed by Steven Bochco – the man behind Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue - debuted on American television in September 1995 and ran until the following Spring. Although reasonably popular, it wasn’t the smash hit which had been expected and was only renewed after it had undergone a ‘rethink’. For the purposes of this review, let’s forget the second series, an uneasy compromise which threw away both the leading character and the originality of the first and ended up as a lengthy elaboration of LA Law. To my mind, Murder One was, and will always remain, the story of Teddy Hoffman, Richard Cross, Neil Avedon and the brutal murder of sad, lost 15 year old Jessica Costello.
Over the course of 23 episodes, Murder One examines a court case from abortive beginning to the verdict and beyond. It begins with the discovery of the body of Jessica Costello, a 15 year old who is found naked, strangled and tied to her bedpost. Immediately accused is millionaire LA businessman Richard Cross (Tucci) who was the last person to be identified at the scene. He insists on his innocence and brings in his lawyer, Ted Hoffman (Benzali) to represent him. A convenient alibi soon emerges and Cross is freed but Hoffman’s involvement in the case isn’t over. Soon, Detective Arthur Polson (Baker) has arrested teen-idol actor Neil Avedon (Gedrick) and Hoffman is called in to handle his defence. The case proves immensely complex, complicated by Avedon’s drug and alcohol problems, his acknowledged sexual relationship with the underage girl and his presence in her apartment shortly before the murder. The state, represented by sharp-shooting Deputy DA Miriam Grasso (Bosson) is sure that they have an open and shut case, but Hoffman isn’t convinced and the constant interference from Richard Cross makes him suspect that there is a lot more to the murder than meets the eye.
The show’s first claim to greatness is perhaps the most dramatically significant and it lies with the leading character of Ted Hoffman. Most lawyers on television – as Bochco’s LA Law demonstrated – are glamorous yuppie types or avuncular, cuddly and gently greying savants. Teddy Hoffman is none of these – the only cuddly thing about him is his name. Quite apart from the physical handicap of resembling Shrek, Hoffman is a tough, professional lawyer who plays nothing but hardball. He’s a guy you really wouldn’t want to cross, particularly not in a courtroom, but he’s exactly the lawyer you’d want to be fighting for your innocence. Hoffman is a serious, soft-spoken man with a voice like gravel mixed with warm molasses and he rarely smiles but when he does it seems to illuminate the whole room. His sarcasm is fearsome and frequently hilarious and his rage brings down the heavens. This man is a unique creation – a hero we can respect and come to love but one who doesn’t agonise over whether or not he’s sufficiently sympathetic. Some credit goes to the various writers on the show who supply him with an endless collection of brutally witty bon-mots and nuggets of kindly meant but sometimes bitter nuggets of wisdom. But most credit goes to the actor who incarnates him, Daniel Benzali. Nothing else in his career is remotely as distinguished as this, suggesting a performer of limited range who found his ideal role, but Benzali’s intelligent, intense and subtle performance is the key to the character’s originality. Benzali knows when to underplay, waiting quietly, and when to emote to the gallery and he’s constantly watchful, waiting for his opportunity to jump in and win a point. If at first, Ted seems like some kind of saint, he’s soon revealed as selfish, rashly judgemental, hypocritical and totally fascinated by himself. In short, he’s a brilliant man who sometimes gets things horribly wrong and it’s this which makes him all the more appealingly human. I’ve rarely seen a better portrait of how a great intellect can become isolating and myopically self-defeating. Ironically, it’s these flaws which makes him sympathetic rather than the artificial, over-familiar family scenes which tip over into schmaltz and soap. But it’s Benzali’s steely intelligence and his charismatic presence – and even his extraordinarily strange physiognomy – which come together to make Ted Hoffman one of the unforgettable TV characters.
But a great character does not necessarily make a great TV series. Indeed, at times it seems that the series is going to be a flawed masterpiece in which a fine central figure is surrounded by ciphers and the young lawyers in Teddy’s office are a bland and, frankly, boring collection of instantly forgotten faces. The supposed drama involving dull Arnold and a romance between Lisa and Chris is dead time and even the likeable Mary McCormack, a good actress, makes little impression, possibly because for a lot of the time she’s shunted into sub-plots before coming back strongly in the finale. However, Ted’s office PA Louis is a nice portrait of a gay man which doesn’t descend into cliche and there are strong showings from Kevin Tighe and Joe Spano as Hoffman’s private detective colleagues. Even better, the central case provides a number of memorable characterisations. Miriam Grasso is a lovely bit of writing, a middle aged woman incarnated by Barbara Bosson (Mrs Bochco in real life) who comes on like a ditzy Mary Poppins, all fluttering and flap intended to mask her extraordinary, relentless forensic ability in the courtroom. Neil Avedon is a well-rounded combination of every teen idol you’ve ever heard of and Jason Gedrick – best known for his role in the guiltily amusing trash of “Iron Eagle” – combines the necessary good looks with a perceptive portrait of a self-deluded young man who is lost in a world which has given him anything he wants without warning him of the consequences. Then there’s Dr Graham Lester, the creepiest psychiatrist you’ve ever encountered whose verbose indulgence of psycho-bollocks every time he opens his mouth is enough to make you want to punch him.
The character who proves a real match for Hoffman, however, is Stanley Tucci’s majestically Mephistophelean Richard Cross. Constantly ducking and weaving, with immense style, through a fog of lies and half-truths, never getting the shit on his shoes, Richard Cross is an irresistible character. He goes through many phases; initially sympathetic and wrongly-accused, then increasingly sinister, then undoubtedly villainous and ultimately tragic. Tearing the American TV stereotype rulebook into tatters, Cross is deeply ambivalent and our reactions to him are uncertain right up until the point when, perhaps irrationally, your heart breaks for him and he supplies a great crowd-pleasing courtroom confrontation against deeply dodgy DA Roger Garfield. This role confirmed Stanley Tucci as a great actor and all the acclaim he received was justified, largely because he frequently makes his character hateful without every quite making us despise him. Tucci manages the difficult trick of evoking a man who has everything but has lost his soul; there’s a moral void where his spiritual centre should be. But the twist of fate which puts our feelings about the character into turmoil is one of those dramatic coups that, once seen, are never forgotten and Tucci handles it superbly and without sentiment.
Murder One also broke new ground in terms of length and complexity. Twin Peaks was roughly the same length but that’s a slightly different case since the format allowed for the tone and themes to change on a weekly basis and the loose, shaggy plot was considerably less confining than the one which Bochco’s show tackles. One complex, intense story running over 23 weeks which ultimately had to come together and make logical sense, was a brave gamble which may have turned off some potential viewers , but it was an experience which a core of faithful viewers will always remember. Even in the UK, where it never reached the audience it deserves, the postponement of the final episodes due to the Atlanta Olympics caused considerable controversy. Hardcore Hoffman fans argued the merits of the various possible explanations, quoted Ted’s latest pearls of legal wisdom and joined together in wishing that he’d just leave his boring family and take up with Francesca Cross, who was clearly gagging for him. Eventually, this gamble led to the rather more commercially successful 24 which used the gimmick of ‘one day’ to grab attention and is far more of an action piece than Murder One. What the earlier show does so successfully is to concentrate on the one case and attempt a reconstruction of the legal process in as faithful a manner as possible, elaborating on previous attempts such as Otto Preminger’s meticulously accurate 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder. To add a little variation, the series uses a variety of courtroom sub-plots to illuminate a variety of legal and moral concerns. Several of these are subsequently worked into the main plot and one of them proves particularly important. At worst, this makes the series a little too similar to LA Law for comfort, and some of the subplots are expendable at best; the two men arguing over a barking dog storyline is ludicrous comic relief at its most obvious and the rapper’s brother on gun charges is preachy and derivative. But at their best, the subplots complement the themes of the main story, particularly the brutalising and inhumane consequences of a legal system which relies on money rather than justice. The portrayal is balanced and often more subtle than that sounds – the character of Dylan Baker’s detective is particularly impressive, being considerably more complex than is initially apparent - but the series also knows when to go for the big dramatic finish, such as the harrowing story of a battered wife who is eventually killed by her ex-husband because the law is unable to protect her. The questions the series raises about the legal process – the treatment of the victim, the technicalities which are exploited to defy justice, the limits of the law to bring closure to either victim or perpetrator – are very significant and if they sometimes go unanswered, at least they are raised in the first place.
The potential problems of spending 23 episodes in a courtroom are carefully circumvented by inventive plotting and it’s not until halfway through, in episode 12, that the People Vs Avedon case really gets going. There is much interesting consideration of the ethics of the doctor-patient and lawyer-client relationships and the sleaze-infested traditions of the Hollywood film industry as represented by the foul producer Gary Blondo. Even something as familiar as jury selection is made riveting through the amount of detail which is included. Unfortunately, some of the plotting comes across as totally unbelievable. Principal casualty of this is the relationship between Ted and his wife. Halfway through the series, his wife – well played by the redoubtable Patricia Clarkson – who has hitherto been supportive for ,we are assured, twelve years, turns into a grasping harpy who hates being a ‘law widow’. Now there is certainly potential here for a serious consideration of the effects that a career has on a marriage but that is wasted. Instead we get lots of soap-operatics. It’s also rather hard to swallow that the wife of a major celebrity lawyer like Hoffman would have lasted twelve years if she was this self-centred. The only way the marriage could have lasted for so long is if an accommodation of mutual satisfaction between the couple had been reached long ago. The plot device of making her want a divorce right in the middle of a major murder case makes her seem needlessly insensitive and has clearly been thrown in simply to add distraction from a central story which some viewers may have found too intensely detailed. I do realise, however, that this is a male response and female viewers may well see it differently.
The reason the soap-operatics and needless comic relief are so irritating is that, basically, this is as much film noir as courtroom drama. The same things used to be annoying in 1940s examples of the genre. Brilliantly detailed as the courtroom side of the film is, it’s the tone which makes the series so memorable. Film Noir has always struck me as essentially being about a descent into darkness and Murder One is most certainly that. LA, so shiny it looks as if the passing clouds polish the buildings, soon stands revealed as a sleazy, amoral inferno which devours innocence and perverts intellect. Everyone is on the take – money, drugs and porn go without saying but even the seemingly incorruptible lawyers are happy to boost their egos and reputations at the cost of someone else’s misery. Even our hero is willing to bend the law if necessary and the finale offers us as much cause of discomfort as anything else. The dreadful story of Jessica Costello, even told in glances at photos and courtroom testimony, is a heartbreaking one and the fact that her ruination eventually comes to be considered a secondary issue is something I find very hard to take but also horribly realistic. People die in Murder One, reputations are shredded, bad men prosper and the only thing we can do is hold onto Ted Hoffman’s sleeve and hope that his essential belief in the law might, perhaps, offer a light at the end of the tunnel. But the tunnel is long and dark and I’m not convinced that the viewer is ever quite offered a way out.
On a technical level, Murder One is beyond criticism. Remarkably, the mid-1990s trend for MTV-style fast cutting is only in evidence at certain, appropriate points such as the valuable prologues to each episode which allow viewers to get up to steam on the plot. Rather, the various directors, all working with the same DP Aaron Schneider, use surprisingly lengthy tracking shots around the courtroom to avoid things getting static or fast cuts ruining our concentration. There’s a sinuous elegance to the look of the show which combines well with the lithe wit of the writing. Even Mike Post’s echt-baroque music seems entirely in keeping with the visuals. I’ve seen the show twice now, once in the original weekly format and once, during the past week, in lengthy 3 hour sessions and I can honestly say that at no point was I tempted to skip or wander about the room, even during the patience-testing family scenes. Murder One is one of the best TV series ever made – a complex, carefully shaded examination of human morality - and anyone making a courtroom drama in the future is bound to be endebted to it. Even the eventual revelation of whodunnit manages to be reasonably convincing – although I have certain reservations about this, it’s not fair to discuss them in a review which might be read by newcomers to the series. It’s rare that I can honestly describe a piece of television as being absolutely essential viewing but that’s exactly how I would describe Murder One. Essential and unforgettable.
Having spent the best part of eight years wondering whether this series would ever make it to video or DVD, I was wrong-footed by the casual announcement from Fox that it would be released on DVD in the UK this September. It’s a delight to see the series again but the DVD release does present certain problems.
The series has been transferred in its original fullscreen format. Although the transfers contain a good amount of detail, there is a lot of aliasing, or shimmering, which I found distracting. There’s also a considerable problem at times with edge-enhancement which leads to a very unsightly image. I found this more of a concern on the first two discs but it may be that I’d got used to it by disc three. On the positive side, colours seem stronger than they did on the original TV showing and the strong contrasts between light and dark intended by the DP have been faithfully transferred. However, overall, I found this rather disappointing and about the same quality as Fox’s recent release of Millenium: Season One.
The audio is straightforward Dolby Surround, reflecting the original presentation of the series. It’s perfectly acceptable for the material, which is overwhelmingly dialogue based. Everything is well balanced with dialogue remaining eminently clear, even when Daniel Benzali seems to be enunciating from somewhere deep within his torso. Nothing here to trouble your audio set-up but it’s a clean, clear track.
The extras are somewhat minimal. We get a 25 minute documentary on disc six called “Making The Case” which contains interviews with some of the cast and crew. It’s interesting but superficial and nothing about the negative reaction to the series in some quarters – and the canning of Benzali – is mentioned. Nor are the commentary tracks on episodes 8 and 15 much more enlightening. The first is by Jason Gedrick and hovers between being engaging and annoying. He talks sporadically but with enthusiasm and it’s worth a listen. The second is by director Randy Zisk and is primarily a technical account of making a TV show in the mid-nineties. Interesting at times but dry. The main problem with these tracks is that I could sense that there’s a lot of scandal and gossip being ignored. Given the length of the series and the numerous people involved, I’m sure Fox could have come up with something a bit more substantial.
The set consists of six discs with four 45 minute episodes on the first five and three on the sixth. Each episode is broken into twelve chapter stops and has its original titles and end credits. English subtuitles are provided for the series and the documentary but not the commentaries.
Even given the disappointing picture quality of the disc, Murder One is so damned brilliant that it’s a well-nigh essential purchase. Fans will be delighted to see it again and newcomers are bound to get hooked within ten minutes of the beginning. Highly recommended, and then some – and for £29.99 it’s an absolute steal.