Judge Mike Pinsky thinks that if Daniel Benzali could fight any celebrity playing a television lawyer, he would fight Shatner. William Shatner.
"Don't get addicted to remorse. It's contemptible in a lawyer. The world does not revolve around you. Your behavior is not its moral center. Someday someone may sit in judgment on this legal system and say it could have been fairer or more compassionate or more responsive to social need. Maybe it'll be me. But not while I'm a criminal defense lawyer."—Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali)
Daniel Benzali, in the hands of the average television series, would be the obvious choice for a mob boss or corrupt lawyer. And the first time we meet him on Murder One, his character, defense attorney Theodore Hoffman, does seem a little shady, if only by virtue of the oily clients he represents. Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) is an insincere pretty boy actor with a penchant for drunk-and-disorderly and the ability to feign contrition with soap opera histrionics. Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) is the richest man in Los Angeles. A patron of the arts, married and successful, Cross is the man to be seen with. He is close friends with the district attorney, the mayor, and everybody else who counts. He also has a penchant for kinky sex and runs his business as ruthlessly as a Corleone. You might mistake him for Lex Luthor's smarter brother.
All these men are brought together by a terrible rape and murder. Jessica Costello is 15 and very dead. Her supermodel sister (Bobbie Phillips) is dating Richard Cross. Cross gets arrested, but when another of his mistresses provides an alibi, he is released. Instead, the police focus their attention on Neil Avedon. And Avedon turns to Teddy Hoffman, at the request of Richard Cross. Hoffman tells Cross that he will likely point to the businessman as the killer in his defense of Avedon. Cross relishes the challenge. Investigator Dave Blalock (Kevin Tighe) sums it up to Hoffman: "He likes playing with fire, and you're the hottest guy in town."
And all this is just the beginning.
Television producer Steven Bochco has always relished the opportunity to take familiar genres and twist them just a little. Sometimes, as in the case of L.A. Law or Hill Street Blues, there is just enough originality to keep audiences hooked, and critical accolades pile up at Bochco's doorstep, encouraging him to try something even riskier next time around. Sometimes, as with Doogie Howser, M.D., the buzz surrounding the show is more interesting than the show itself. And sometimes, the show just unravels. Cop Rock, anyone? Murder One falls somewhere in the middle of all these extremes. Its initial premise—follow a single murder case for an entire season—was clever at the time. And fortunately, the first season had a hell of a case to work with.
The "Goldilocks Murder Case," as the press dubs it, contains all the elements necessary for a circus trial: kinky sex, powerful people, deep and sinister conspiracies. However, none of this would work for 23 weeks without larger-than-life adversaries to keep our attention during the endless conversations about jury selection, trial motions, and other minutiae that most shows are able to skim over in order to squeeze their cases into an episode or two. Murder One's sprawling case is held together by intense performances by Daniel Benzali and Stanley Tucci. Tucci can turn a slight smile into the Devil's best pick-up line. He must be guilty of something, and he is always manipulating you. That is just his nature: the almost sexual thrill he gets simply out of risking exposure. But how deep does his involvement in this crime go?
Benzali is all slow burn. Nobody on television can convey barely concealed disgust and repressed anger as well. The audience might mistake him at first for a man who is all business and no honor, but the Ted Hoffman that emerges over the course of the series is nobody's fool. In fact, he is so ruthlessly just and scrupulous that he almost becomes rather a bore, an untouchable agent of virtue in the midst of the viper pit of Los Angeles. His finely tuned sense of sarcasm is what really livens up his scenes.
Indeed, one of the key flaws in the series is that Hoffman's domestic life feels tacked on. There is little chemistry between Benzali and TV wife Patricia Clarkson, which makes their emerging marital difficulties just another plot device. Hoffman is meant to be the show's anchor. But his emotional reticence means that all our empathy must be directed at the characters around him. Half the cast consists of murder suspects, so the audience is loath to trust anything they say. And the other half, the lawyers on Hoffman's staff, could have walked out of any other lawyer show. This makes the subplot cases in the first half of the season, unrelated one-shots meant to give the supporting players something to do, appear even more like padding. Only J.C. MacKenzie as nerdy Arnold Spivak is fun to watch. The generic nature of the supporting cast also makes the show a weak prospect for multiple cases, unlike 24, which is smart enough to create an interesting supporting cast around Kiefer Sutherland. I do not make this comparison arbitrarily: A sticker on the packaging for the Fox DVD release of Murder One: The Complete First Season specifically targets 24 fans.
When Murder One ran week to week back in 1995, I remember being frustrated at the pace of the show in its first half. Of course, DVD allows you to watch multiple episodes at once, which works in the show's favor. As Fox discovered with 24, DVD sales for a serialized show can prop up weekly ratings considerably. If Murder One were broadcast today, it might have been more successful. As it stands, weak ratings and the mainstream audience's dissatisfaction with what it mistakenly saw as a monotonous performance by Benzali led to a massive overhaul of the show during its second season. I can only compare this to similar reactions over Michael O'Hare's departure from Babylon 5 in favor of the lighter touch of Bruce Boxleitner. Both Benzali and O'Hare were considered stiff by viewers not used to their reserved performances, but as their respective seasons wore on, we got used to the subtle moves and slight emotional shading of their characters.
On Murder One, the scrupulous Hoffman was replaced (after Danny Glover and Alan Alda apparently balked) by the more dissolute and irresponsible Jimmy Wyler, played by Anthony LaPaglia, and the second season showcased several multi-episode cases rather than one season-long case. Since much of the real narrative drive of the first season comes from the chess game between Hoffman and Cross, Murder One really is a one-shot deal. Any second season of the show, even if Benzali had stayed, would lack the fire generated by their conflict. So, the show limped through its second season, then vanished.
In retrospect, perhaps Steven Bochco could have built the show around Barbara Bosson, who steals scenes as district attorney Miriam Grasso, perhaps the best role of her career. While her big, red glasses and hairstyle suggest that her character is inspired by daytime talker Sally Jessy Raphaël, her ditzy charm hides a sharp courtroom foil for Hoffman. She could have easily been the star here. Unfortunately, Bosson has not been seen much since she and Bochco divorced after the cancellation of this show.
Bochco seems to have divorced himself from this DVD release of Murder One's first season as well. He is nowhere to be seen on any of the supplements, which are pretty thin in any case. Jason Gedrick, who plays Neil Avedon, turns in a commentary track, oddly for an episode in which he is not particularly in the spotlight (the focus is more on the seedy secondary villain Dr. Lester, played by Stanley Kamel). The commentary is rambling and, by Gedrick's own admission, annoying. The most amusing part is his attempt to justify his off-set partygoing as "staying in character."
There is also a commentary track by director Randall Zisk, for a mid-season episode where the biggest plot twist is that the jury members are sleeping with one another. A little soapy, but how often on these shows do the dynamics of a jury come into play? Of course, given that the episode involves a lot of static close-ups of characters talking, there is not much in the way of directorial flourish to discuss. Also, Zisk only directed three episodes of the nearly two dozen, so he can say little of the overall production strategies of the show. What we have, then, are a supporting actor and a journeyman director commenting on less-than-crucial episodes in the larger story arc. In short, Fox seems to have found whoever was available on the spur of the moment, rather than shelling out for commentaries by anyone really close to the top.
Some of the cast and crew (except notably Bochco and Stanley Tucci) turn up for a 25-minute featurette with comments about the show's first season. Daniel Benzali, much less intense than his Hoffman character, claims he thought of the show as film noir and played Hoffman in a Raymond Chandler mode.
All comparisons to noir aside, Murder One is a pretty straightforward murder mystery. Any moral gray areas visited here in the spirit of Chandler have been thoroughly covered already by other shows, and the O.J. Simpson / Fatty Arbuckle quality of the Avedon case reminds us that we have seen it all before in real life. There is not much thematic depth apart from a preachy scene or two, as when the receptionist's boyfriend is arrested because he is black, leading to a moment of soul-searching about racial impartiality. Or when a brief sequence in the final episode about judicial corruption shows up (and is just as quickly dropped). Since the show is fairly action-free, most scenes consist of two-character conversations, broken up with the expected trial sequences. As a result, there is little repeat value here. For those who want a solidly told and engaging murder mystery might want to pick up Murder One: The Complete First Season , at least for a rental.
As a self-contained story, rather than a recurring television series, Murder One works well because it is not afraid to play a risky game with audience sympathy. Bochco is not afraid to embrace the "lawyer as shark" cliché and run with it. Prickly Ted Hoffman is an unusual television character, as much villain as hero. And perhaps more like a real celebrity defense attorney than most other television lawyers. That, in itself, is worth checking out.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring Actor Jason Gedrick
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