Judge Joel Pearce thinks it would've been easier if they'd just called this sophomore season Murder Two.
"You're not a D.A. anymore, Jimmy. You don't have to believe your case to work it."—Chris
Jumping into the second season of Murder One is a scary proposition. After some poor first season ratings, producer Stephen Bochco decided to pull back from his original vision and cover several trials in the second season. They also lost the strongest asset of the show, Daniel Benzali (Murder at 1600), replacing him with a new lead lawyer in Anthonly LaPaglia (Lantana).
LaPaglia plays Jimmy Wyler, a disgruntled lawyer who is mistreated by the D.A. for the last time. He has always been a bulldog of a prosecutor, and he decides on a whim to switch over and try his hand on the other side of the bar. Wyler is snatched up by Hoffman and Associates. Now that Teddy Hoffman has decided to take a break to get his life in order, they need a strong leader to bring in the big cases. They think that Wyler is a dangerous but potentially great choice.
It's not long until the new firm has its first case: A young woman is charged with murdering her famous ex-lover. It's a high profile case, and Wyler is soon thrust into the complex politics and morality of the world of sleazy defense lawyers.
The formula is changed, the lead actor is changed, but the magic is still there. While a legal series that follows a single case all the way through was a great idea, the television audience of 1995 just wasn't ready for that level of television commitment. Of course, now we have 24 and Alias, but every revolution in television entertainment requires a few martyred visionaries to fall before we realize that something great has come along. Murder One is one such martyr—and one well worth revisiting on DVD.
This is especially true of its second season. Jimmy Wyler proves to be a great addition to the show, and his challenges as a new defense lawyer help to develop an ideological theme that runs through the whole season: What obligation does a defense lawyer have to his clients? In our system, we believe that everyone has a right to a fair trial. That doesn't change the fact that some defendants are sleazy, disgusting people who we don't want to see running around free. This idea is explored with Murder One's trademark moral complexity. At first, all three of the clients that the firm represents in this series appear guilty as sin. The challenge for Wyler is whether or not he should alienate his old friends and use dirty lawyer tricks to get his clients off.
In theory, it's easy to say that we want defense lawyers to try as hard as possible for their clients. After all, if we were falsely accused (or fairly accused I suppose), we would want our lawyers to get us off by any means available. As we see the clients who walk through Hoffman and Associates' door, though, we wonder if it wouldn't be best for Wyler to put in a fair effort, but slip up a few times in order to keep these monsters off the street. Then, the show really kicks the issues into high gear. As we dig deeper into the trials, we realize that not everything is as it seems. We become uncertain of the clients' guilt ourselves, which makes the questions of defense responsibility that much harder to answer. Each of the cases is unique, and so the whole series plays out like a complex exploration of this issue.
Although I've made it sound heavy, watching Murder One is also a lot of fun. The second season has almost as many plot twists and surprises as the first. Many of the best characters from the first season make a return appearance. Miriam Grasso (Barbara Bosson, Little Sweetheart) is a great foil for the main characters. She is a good lawyer and a good person, an opponent without animosity. In a world of corrupt cops and dirty politicians, her character is an anchor of hope to hold onto. The infighting of the junior associates is still amusing as well, and they all reprise their roles well. D.B. Woodside (Romeo Must Die) is a nice addition to the cast. And the inter-office politics always offers a nice diversion from the actual cases.
All three trials are also well designed. The first digs back into old Murder One territory, with shady political figures pulling the strings in the background. Things change slightly with the celebrity-driven second case, involving a famous basketball player who couldn't look more guilty if he tried. This isn't much different than the Neil Avedon case from the first season, but the issues are thankfully different. It's the third trial, featuring genuinely creepy vigilante/serial killer Clifford Banks (Pruitt Taylor Vince, Constantine) that really stands out, though. Since he gladly admits his own guilt, the real question in his case is not finding the truth, but figuring out what to do based upon what is known. I won't spoil any more of the details, but it's great legal television.
The disc is on par with the first season, but the transfer looks a bit cleaner this time around. The picture is sharper and has a lot less of the ghosting typical of old television shows. The audio is fine too, with clear dialogue, and that same opening theme that sticks in your head for days. It's not a dazzling transfer, but it does the job. The only extra is a production featurette, which does a fine job of laying out what it was like creating the show. It does tread into self-congratulatory mode at times, but it's better than most production featurettes.
(Fun drinking game: take a shot each time one of the actors says, "great.")
If you remember Murder One fondly from its television run, don't hesitate to pick up this set: It's still a great show and this is a solid DVD release. If you have never seen the show, it's well worth investigating. It's some of the best, deepest, and most thoughtful legal television ever made. The untimely broadcast death of Murder One is tragic, but don't waste your time mourning. Two great seasons of the show have been resurrected on DVD.
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• Production Featurette
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