Pass the Remote: Murder in the First – Film Dispenser

Television June 16, 2014 Scott Phillips
Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every Fall.

[Over the past year, Film Dispenser has provided recurring in-depth analysis of television series like The Killing, True Detective, Justified, Homeland, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. With so many new platforms offering original content (Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu) in addition to the networks we have already come to rely upon for quality programming (HBO, Showtime, AMC, FX), Film Dispenser has created a new column called Pass the Remote that will appear several times a month to provide reviews and analysis of television series that we will not be following on a week-to-week basis. Our goal is to help you make more efficient use of your viewing time. Let us watch the bad shows so that you don’t have to and allow us to pass along some suggestions for content we think you will enjoy.]

When it comes to the medium of television, Steven Bochco has done it all. He invented the “gritty cop show” genre in 1981 with Hill Street Blues and reinvented it in 1993 with NYPD Blue. In between those landmark shows, he updated Perry Mason via Beverly Hills with L.A. Law (1986-1994). Before 24, Lost, The Killing and dozens of other serialized dramas populated the television landscape, Bochco chronicled the fictional exploits of criminal defense attorney Ted Hoffman and his firm as the audience followed a single criminal prosecution from arrest to verdict on Murder One (1995-97).

So, there is no doubt that Bochco has the pedigree to put a cop show on television. The main question is: should he? Then again, he gets paid to produce these dramas, so maybe the better question is: should you care? With multiple Law & Order franchises, several CSIs, a handful of NCISs, and a vast number of other crime dramas on television, do we need another group of cops chasing a murderer for ten episodes? Given the talent in front of, and behind the camera, for Murder in the First, the answer just might be “yes”.

Crime shows are usually defined by their point-of-view. You have the “Just the facts, ma’am” dramas like Law & Order that owe their plot-driven format to predecessors like 1967’s Dragnet. These shows avoid any look at the characters’ personal lives and focus solely on the investigation and prosecution of crime. The criminal justice system itself is the primary character, and the cops, prosecutors and defense attorneys are just cogs in the machine.

As the world became a darker and morally ambiguous place, so did television crime dramas. Shows like Homicide: Life on the Street (1993-1999), The Wire (2002-2008) and The Killing (2011 – present) examined the personal and societal costs of law enforcement along with the attendant whodunits and the mysteries. Politics and public relations became as important as evidence and witnesses.

After a single episode, Murder in the First appears to be a balanced blend of these sub-genres. The season will follow a single murder from investigation to trial, and the audience will be given a behind-the-scenes look at both sides of the aisle, prosecution and defense. The tone of the show is personal. The protagonists are presented as well-rounded characters, not just people in suits asking questions. While all of the scientific jargon is present and accounted for, Murder in the First has personality and avoids being another dry procedural.

The show opens with our two detectives, Terry English (Taye Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson). They are investigating the murder of a junkie who was blackmailing tech mogul Erich Blunt. Terry is torn between work and home as he cares for a wife with stage four pancreatic cancer. Hildy is separated or divorced and learning how to share custody with her ex while meeting the rigorous demands of The Job. When their case takes an unexpected turn, the viewers learn that the focal crime of the season is not what they initially thought it was. Throwing in a plausible twist before the end of the pilot proves to be an effective way to send the action in a new, more interesting, direction.

2014 has seen a number of inventive variations on the crime genre – True Detective, Hannibal, and Fargo among others – so it may be difficult to justify investing ten hours in another fairly conventional cop drama if you haven’t sampled the more imaginative offerings from the past television season. But, with a talented cast and a veteran writer/producer like Steven Bochco at the helm, Murder in the First has every reason to deliver on its intriguing premise, even if it is a bit conventional.

Scott Phillips

The Movie Isle

Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.

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