"'Murder in the First' Is Only a Mild Intellectual Puzzle," review by NCC Associate Professor Lesley Smith

TNT’s Murder in the First returns for a second summer, plunging its tough but vulnerable detectives, Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson), into another high-stakes crime investigation in San Francisco. With the potential for stunning locations, a brace of Bochcos on board (father Steven as co-creator, son Jesse as director of the season openers), and sharp actors, Murder in the First should sizzle from the first. Yet, as so often with Bochco Senior’s recent work, the concept lacks originality and the execution lacks panache. Instead, we see the network’s obvious investment in production, some promising direction, and a professional cast doing its best with a dodgy script. 

Scripting matters in a genre like the cop show, where so much of the action is pro forma and familiar to likely viewers. Yet co-creator Eric Lodal and Robert Munic, who wrote the first two episodes, resort to platitudes snatched from the 24-hour news cycle. When a colleague mentions that a school bus involved in a bloody crime might stay on the street for a week, Mulligan piously intones. “This city can’t begin to heal until this bus is out of sight.”

Her partner fares no better. When English is grabbing a much-needed meal at a local diner, junior uniformed cop Raffi Velacruz (Emmanuelle Chriqui) slips into the seat beside him and starts spearing his huevos rancheros. As she imitates a well-known sexual maneuver with each mouthful, the very uncomfortable-looking English asks whether she’s satisfied. “Hardly ever,” she smirks, cueing the least convincing backroom sex of the TV year.

Despite such generic plotting, Jesse Bochco delivers some visual creativity, choreographing overlapping layers of action in order to inject energy into basic walking and talking scenes. Though the action scenes might benefit from more ruthless editing, he directs principals and extras well enough that a complex, multi-stage downtown crisis oscillates compellingly between a tense standoff and frantic, confused activity.

Helpfully, he has a good eye for the contingent detail: when the detectives and technicians are processing the underground site of a fellow officer’s death, he stretches the time passing to indicate their obsessive scrutiny of crime scene details. And when the same cop’s body is carried into the street, the somewhat predictable, albeit beautifully framed, cut-aways to observing cops and EMTs include a fleeting moment where one weary tactical officer doffs his helmet in respect. Less compellingly, this sequence unfolds in a sentimental slo-mo nudge to the audience. It also falls into the trap of sending key members of the cast into a dark place with no electricity and making them wave flashlights, as if such cliché might constitute either drama or tension.

Read more of Dr. Smith's review here.