'Murder In The First' Review: Newest Cop Drama Shows Promise
Cop shows tend to be non-serialized, done-in-one stories in the vein of Law & Order or CSI. Viewers go for that sort of thing because the crime is almost always solved by the end of the hour and the show requires no longer term commitment – just some mild entertainment while waiting for the laundry. Murder in the First, the latest police procedural by Steven Bochco and Eric Lodal, however, offers a more serialized experience than most shows in the genre.
The series promises a season long (10 episodes) case, with smaller cases thrown in, and long-term character arcs. Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and Terry English (Taye Diggs) are SFPD (San Francisco Police Department) detectives working a case involving the murders of people with a connection to Erich Blunt (Tom Felton), a poorly veiled combination of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. While there are plenty of cop show cornerstones — “The department doesn’t have that kind of money,” and “This job doesn’t leave room for a social life” — the fact that as much time is devoted to the personal lives of Mulligan and English as is devoted to the case gives Murder in the First an edge against its many peers. There is hope that the show will be something more than the usually soft dramas TNT forces on us.
Mulligan is a single mother with custody of her precocious daughter Louise (Mimi Kirkland), and, in an interesting turnaround, apparently owes palimony to her ex-husband who is implied to be a bum. Mulligan is a decent if disorganized mother, and is using an app to try and find a boyfriend. While there is definitely a lot that can be done with the character — her situation is certainly refreshing — Robertson doesn’t have meaty material to work with yet, so she doesn’t seem to shine the way she did on Boss.
It’s Taye Diggs’ Terry English that is given the most character depth. His wife is at the end of a long fight with Leukemia and he’s having a difficult time processing this. His grief and sleeplessness have caused him to mildly hallucinate, seeing his wife where he shouldn’t. This is a crutch the pilot stands on, and becomes less effective after the first hallucination (seeing her as a victim with a bullet in her head) which was quick and quietly powerful.
English’s rage gets the better of him when he beats up a suspect (played by Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad!), which is the pilot’s strongest moment. Not only does it wake the audience a bit, but it also allows Diggs a chance to emote and shows a larger dynamic in the police station. When the beating starts, Mulligan quickly exits the room for the sake of plausible deniability and the Lieutenant quickly pockets the recording. Neither of them give English a problem about the beating and the suspect is simply collateral damage that nobody cares about. The whole scene is reminiscent – in the best way – of The Shield, likely the greatest cop show in television history. If Murder in the First can keep up the level of moral ambiguity and further dissolve the difference between the perceived good guys and the bad, this series could potentially be great.
The problems lay in the details however. This isn’t a subtle show. The dialogue can be clunky in its directness, fairly obvious plot points are spoon fed to the audience, and the officers outside of the leads are simply cop show stalwarts that are interchangeable in their mono-dimensional, single-line characterizations that were likely recycled directly from the call sheet. Of course, this is just the pilot, and these problems could very well be ironed out in the next few episodes. At the same time, it would probably have served the episode greater if these characters weren’t in the pilot at all since there wasn’t room to do them justice. As we see them, they are placeholders born of comfortable genre clichés and time wasters. The time could have been better spent in adding more layers to Mulligan’s character or forwarding the plot a bit more.
The tone of the series is also a bit of a problem. Not as bleak and dull as The Killing, but a bit too bright for The Wire, Murder in the First shifts between the gritty and dilapidated neighborhoods Mulligan and English investigate, and the punchy, joke-laden dialogue of The Closer or Major Crimes. TNT’s own penchant for meaningless soft programming makes Murder in the First a series unsure of itself or its place; it’s hard to say if this is evidence of studio meddling or the awkward first steps of a new series.
Regardless, the fact that the episode chose to end on a downbeat character note, rather than some unlikely plot development, shows that the series could be more than just good looking people pointing guns and rattling off corny one-liners, and of the five thousand cop shows that debut every season, this is the only one worth a second view.
Murder in the First airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on TNT.