Critics are reviewing it, and TNT is promoting it -- but given the resume of its executive producer it is somewhat surprising that the premiere of TNT’s new legal drama “Murder in the First” isn’t causing more of a stir.
Steven Bochco, the man behind “First” and so many other extraordinary television series during the last 30 years, is one of the very few program creators I can think of who actually challenged basic assumptions about what series television could be and then created shows that would forever impact the medium. I would put him a pedestal next to Norman Lear and very few others -- people who forced mainstream television entertainment to smarten up, met with largely favorable responses for their efforts and made it possible for many other talented writers and producers to express themselves in ways that today are taken for granted.
What sets both Bochco and Lear even further apart from their few peers is the fact that they both very quickly proved they weren’t one- or even two-hit wonders. They changed television and then they ran with it, over and over again, often with stunning results.
Among the many shows Bochco has created and served as executive producer of during the last thirty years are three that rattled the very foundation of the television business and set new standards to which most dramatic series could only aspire: “Hill Street Blues,” “L.A. Law” and “NYPD Blue.” Remarkably, neither “Blues,” which premiered in 1981; or “Law,” which began in 1986; or “Blue,” which debuted in 1991, feel especially dated today, except for the obvious absence of omnipresent digital technology in the lives of their protagonists, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Along the way, Bochco also gave us other challenging fare including the minor-league baseball drama “Bay City Blues” (which lasted for only eight episodes back in 1983, included Sharon Stone and Dennis Franz in its cast and featured what I believe to have been the first glimpse of nudity -- a bare backside -- in the history of series television), “Doogie Howser, M.D.” (a dramedy that ran from 1989-93 about a gifted teenage surgeon starring Neil Patrick Harris), “Cop Rock” (a very ambitious police drama/musical hybrid that failed in 1990), “Murder One” (a legal drama that followed one case through an entire season) and “Over There” (the FX drama about soldiers in the Iraq War, which in 2005 was the first television series set during a war that took place while that war was happening).
So what if Bochco’s most recent shows -- “Raising the Bar” and now “Murder in the First,” both legal dramas on TNT -- aren’t as boundary busting or genre-changing as many of his best? How many times can any one person turn an entire medium on its side?
Obviously, “Murder in the First” owes an enormous debt to “Murder One,” a tremendously compelling drama series that presented season-long murder mysteries during each of its two seasons on ABC -- almost 20 years ago! In that sense Bochco is revisiting a well he was the first to construct. “Murder One” impressed critics but never really caught fire with viewers, perhaps because a commitment of more than 20 hours per season in the service of the same story proved too demanding.
This was a problem for Fox’s “24” during the later seasons of its original eight-year run. But “24” is back this summer with a shortened season, which so far has kept it from dragging or becoming entirely too improbable, as was often the case with its 24-episode arcs. Similarly, the briefer seasons for basic cable series should make “Murder in the First” on TNT tighter and more intense than “Murder One” was on ABC. I look forward to seeing what Bochco does with it.