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In the mid 1990s, Murder One was part of the assault on our screens of a new wave of high-quality American television series. Out went the soapy shenanigans of LA Law and the bland Cosby Show, and in came the hard-edged Murder One and the snappy writing of Friends, backed up by other greats such as The X Files, NYPD Blue and ER. But Murder One stands out of this bunch for good reason, as not only did it’s unique format lay the groundwork for the real-time success of 24, it was cancelled after just two seasons. Finally the first season is now available on DVD and ripe for a re-evaluation, given that nearly ten years have passed since its original broadcast.

Murder One: The Complete First Season
Co-created by Steven Bochco (creator of Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue etc), this first season of Murder One is composed of a self-contained twenty-three episode story, featuring the twists and turns of a murder trial featuring Richard Cross, a millionaire philanthropist, and Neil Avedon, a popular young actor, both at turns accused of brutally raping and killing a fifteen-year-old girl. The story is told from the point of view of the defence counsel, namely hotshot lawyer Theodore Hoffman and his band of associates. But during the course of the season we do digress from this main plot quite regularly, as we also get to see the day-to-day actions of Hoffman’s underlings as they defend a wide variety of criminal cases, ranging from trivial disputes to serious crimes. This helps to provide much of the humanity and moral core of the show (plus some occasional light relief) as the main story delves deeper and deeper into the depraved lives of the main antagonists.

Like NYPD Blue, the episodes have a nicely linear slant, usually starting with a handy morning run-down of the day's agenda at Hoffman's offices, and ending with a main character (typically Hoffman) returning home at the end of the day to seek the comfort of their family. This helps to create a sense of time passing, and more importantly helps us to see past the often morally-dubious work lives of these characters. This can’t be done for everyone, so some characters are slightly neglected in terms of characterisation, but as the performances are so good—including the day players and the semi regulars—this helps to cover any cracks, as does the intelligent writing.

The charismatic, no-nonsense character of Teddy Hoffman is superbly played by Daniel Benzali, someone who you’re not going to see in society’s ‘Most Beautiful’ Lists. He’s got a few extra pounds on his frame, a stubby nose and pointy ears—he’s also as bald as a coot. But he was born for this role. His intelligent, unflinching, growly-voiced portrayal feels disturbingly natural; you don’t stop to think you’re watching an actor playing a role, you are instead watching Teddy Hoffman at work, warts and all. And if it wasn’t for Stanley Tucci’s wonderfully smug turn as the devious and manipulative Richard Cross, Benzali would act everyone else off the screen. Benzali himself admits that he struggled to separate himself from his on-screen persona, such was his immersion (or perhaps the similarity to himself) in the character. It’s a great shame that he did not return for the second season, even for just a few episodes (which immediately scuppered any chance Season two had of succeeding, that and the expanded ‘multiple case’ format), and he’s been languishing on the sidelines ever since.

Murder One: The Complete First Season
The supporting actors do what they can in the face of such heavyweights. Mary McCormack, Michael Hayden, J.C. MacKenzie and Grace Phillips do as well as can be expected as Hoffman’s nondescript associates. Jason Gedrick does a great job at playing the dim-witted Neil Avedon, and a special mention must go to Barbara Bosson as the deceptively off-beat prosecution attorney Miriam Grasso. Her banter back and forth with Hoffman, and the professional respect with which these two adversaries treat each other, is one of the highlights of the show. Patricia Clarkson is also effective as Hoffman’s long-suffering wife. And Bobbie Phillips has a semi-regular role as the beautiful sister of the murder victim and close friend of Richard Cross. The last of the main regulars worth mentioning is Dylan Baker, playing the gleefully adversarial Detective Polson.

The writing doesn’t scrimp on the technical lingo, with characters reeling off legal terms and abbreviations so thick and fast you have to listen intently to merely get the gist of what they’re saying, lending another layer of realism that (again) has a lot in common with NYPD Blue. The comparisons stop at the camera work thankfully; the shaky-cam approach works so well in Bochco's Noo York cop show, but it would’ve been ill-suited to a courtroom drama such as this. Mixed in with some swish crane shots, close-ups are the main staple of the framing, and why not? The acting is so good it’d be a crime to waste it all on bland master shots and static cameras. Murder One is also lit beautifully for a television product, featuring warm tones and naturalistic lighting that creates a lot of depth, with a lot of shadows cast on a lot of faces—almost a visual metaphor for the shady antics of many of the show’s characters. And even the faux ‘Law TV’ segments look surprisingly authentic.

But what really makes this season a classic is the nail-biting format; over the twenty-three episodes, there are many double crosses, red herrings and outright lies, played out both inside and outside the courtroom. As the story becomes ever more intense the stakes begin to rise, notably as Hoffman's family life begins to suffer, and one wonders if any of the characters will be quite the same again after the Avedon case is resolved, such is the corrupting influence of one Richard Cross. The most predictable aspect of the season is the 'race against time' aspect of the last two episodes, which could be seen as a cheap shot to keep viewers hooked - but it works! The big reveal may be a little undercooked, but after the twisty-turny quality of the previous twenty-two episodes it's hard to see where a satisfyingly original ending would've come from. The season closes in a seriously downbeat manner, which in retrospect perfectly fits with the uncertain future that Hoffman faces, both personally and professionally.

Murder One: The Complete First Season
Viewed again after nearly a decade, this first season of Murder One doesn’t just hold up, it exudes quality from every frame. The densely plotted storyline still makes for some head-scratching moments (even the lack of a suitably dramatic climax can't take the shine off) while the acting and photography is top-notch and the often intense dialogue doesn’t stoop to make concessions for those not versed in legalese. Some characters can seem a little flat, there to either make up the numbers or to get bumped off, but this complaint is soon forgotten as the main story gathers pace. And it could be argued that the unique season-long story arc pioneered in Murder One evolved into the real-time exploits of Jack Bauer and co. in the phenomenally popular 24, and we must give thanks to the TV Gods for that.

To be honest, the video quality is distinctly average. Presented in 4:3 as originally broadcast, it’s obviously come from a composite video source, as evidenced by the shimmering over patches of fine detail. Some of the suit jackets worn by the characters are covered in a frenzy of shimmering rainbows. The abundance of close-up shots helps to show off what detail is available, but anything longer than a medium shot loses quite a bit of finesse. The later episodes do look a bit tidier though.

Murder One basically has that frustrating grainy-but-soft appearance that blights older American television shows (just look at the first few seasons of Friends). Colours are reproduced well enough, although they do occasionally take on a slightly waxy look, especially on skin tones. Darker colours can also be seen bleeding into lighter hues (and vice versa) albeit only slightly. Contrast is fair, with an acceptable black level than can appear slightly off-colour at times.

The video compression is adequate. Some episodes can look quite neat, but others can exhibit noticeable compression artefacts in the form of blocking. Edge halos are obvious, but not to the point of distraction. The biggest plus point I can think of is that there is very little in the way of film artefacts, with only a few specks and marks appearing from time to time.

Murder One gets a standard DVD audio track for a television product of this vintage: it's Dolby Digital 2.0, thankfully mixed in Dolby Surround. This is probably the biggest casualty of the nature of the show, as there’s only so much that can be done with folk talking in a courtroom. Still, it’s all mixed competently, with clear, intelligible dialogue and crisp music from regular Bochco collaborator Mike Post (I still love that theme tune!).

Murder One: The Complete First Season
All the surround track is good for is a slight extension of the music score and to reaffirm the locales (the dialogue is accompanied by suitable reflections depending on the environment, some of which are surprisingly effective). So while it’s not spectacular, it’s a damn site better than the treatment the picture has received. The foreign language Dolby Surround tracks have the same general ambience, but for obvious reasons feature a slightly flatter presentation of dialogue.

This DVD release includes only a few bonus features. First we get a commentary on chapter eight by Jason Gedrick, and he’s prone to just watching the episode without comment. But he does chip in with some interesting titbits, like a brief run-down of how the show struggled to survive in its original American timeslot. Gedrick also laments Daniel Benzali’s subsequent waste of his talent, so much so he makes it sound like the guy‘s dead! The second and last commentary is on chapter fifteen and provided by Randy Zisk, director of that episode. His chat is more technical, focussing on how the series was shot, how the series story plays out, what his relationship to Steven Bochco was like and so on. It’s a dry commentary, and too general to be worth a second listen, but it‘s better than nothing.

The only video feature on the whole set is the 'Making the Case: Season One' featurette, which runs for just over twenty-five minutes. Thankfully it proves one thing: Daniel Benzali has not disappeared off of the face of the Earth. He provides a few sound bites, even getting emotional when talking about the opportunity he was given with Murder One, although he does not mention anything about how or why he left the show. Other cast and crew members also pop up to gush about the experience. Barbara Bosson, Mary McCormack, Jason Gedrick and J.C. MacKenzie are all featured, as is selected episode director Randy Zisk, but there is no input from the main man: Steven Bochco. This featurette is welcome, but is far too short and fluffy to provide any real insight. It’s presented in adequate 4:3 video with Dolby 2.0 audio.

Murder One: The Complete First Season
Murder One was sadly short-lived, even abandoning it's own ground-breaking format for the abortive second season. But this first season is a gem, an absolute classic in the annals of American television. It’s a shame then that this DVD set does not excel in any technical areas. The video quality is mediocre, the audio is unspectacular and the extras are few. And yet I‘m very happy with the set! The quality of the show is such that I can forgive any shortcomings with the DVDs, so it comes highly recommended. Tread a little more carefully with the second season though…