CORRIDOR OF NOIR
VOL. 6, No. 15
The 'body bag' cover
of the 'Murder One'
DVD boxed set
Daniel Benzali as Teddy Hoffman
in the great TV noir series
One of the best TV shows
of the 1990s comes to DVD
By RON MILLER
In the wake of the O.J. Simpson trial and its mesmerizing months of all-day TV coverage, ABC and TV producer Steven Bochco, in the fall of 1995, introduced a TV series called "Murder One" that was obviously inspired by the Simpson trial.
Like America's most notorious murder trial of the decade, "Murder One" was about a televised murder trial in Los Angeles. A celebrity superstar was accused of committing a murder against a background of sex, drugs and a history of violent behavior. For the first time, a TV network presented a weekly one-hour drama that was about a single trial that lasted a whole TV season.
Some were poised to boo "Murder One" as nothing more than shameless exploitation of the public's thirst for more Simpson trial coverage. But those were the people who clearly knew nothing about the work of Steven Bochco, a brilliant and innovative TV writer-producer who already had revolutionized the TV genres of police procedurals and courtroom dramas with "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law," and "NYPD Blue."
What Bochco and his team of writers, directors and actors had done with any moments of inspiration that sprang from the Simpson trial was fashion them into an absorbing and masterful experiment in TV noir. "Murder One" was a work of art--an expression this well-seasoned old TV critic doesn't use blithely.
And now that the powerful first season of "Murder One" is available as a DVD boxed set, everybody can see what too few recognized at the time. "Murder One: The Complete First Season" retails for around $60 in most stores, but can be bought for around $45 from Amazon.com and other online sources offering discounts. Believe me, it's a bargain at any price.
In any Bochco TV series, look first to the writing. "Murder One" is one of the best-written TV series of its generation. There are dozens of well-crafted characters who figure in the complex storyline. These aren't your typical TV characters with just a few dominant traits that fit them into the mosaic. Instead, nearly every one of them is well-rounded, perhaps because the writers had a total of 23 hours to explore every facet of their personas. And the dialogue is rich and memorable, the kind you find in high quality drama and rarely in prime time courtroom shows.
All that alone would have made "Murder One" stand out, but Bochco & Co. took it a step further--giving "Murder One" a distinctive look and feel that immediately separated it from the pack of legal shows, including Bochco's own "L.A. Law" and "Civil Wars." The visual look was shadowy and grim like the classic films of the noir style. Even the close-ups were intense: Part of a face here, just an eye or a quivering lip there. The effect was to thrust the viewer into a dark world where nearly everything we hear or see may be corrupted in some way.
As a metaphor for the legal profession, "Murder One" was often uncompromising. In one stunning moment near the end of the season, young lawyer Chris Docknovich (Michael Hayden) admits he might have accepted an offer to bribe a judge for $100,000 if he'd been running the firm instead of his boss, Teddy Hoffman (Daniel Benzali). That's when Hoffman opens his briefcase, revealing several stacks of currency. The message: Even Hoffman might have gone that route, if things hadn't worked out otherwise.
In the storyline, a 15-year-old girl is found brutally raped and strangled, her naked body handcuffed to her bedpost. Charged with her murder is movie star Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick), a coke-snorting womanizer with a penchant for pretending to strangle girls in order to heighten the thrill while making love to them. She lives in a luxury apartment owned by billionaire Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), who's having an extramarital affair with the girl's older sister Julie (Bobbie Phillips), a prostitute who specializes in high rollers.
Defending Avedon is Teddy Hoffman (Benzali) and his team of young lawyers, working with seasoned private detective Dave Blalock (Kevin Tighe). Prosecuting is Asst. D.A. Miriam Grosso (Barbara Bosson), whose boss, D.A. Roger Garfield (Gregory Itzin), is a candidate for California governor.
There are two towering performances in this first season. The first is given by Daniel Benzali, who underplays most of his scenes, creating the impression Teddy Hoffman is a cold, passionless man who's totally in control of every situation. So, when he finally has to show emotion, Benzali just kicks it up a gear or two and the effect is intensely dramatic, especially coming from this stoic, totally bald, stone-like persona.
In the "Making of..." special feature in the DVD set, Benzali explains how he decided to deliver his lines in a low voice and his directors went along with it. This is a style Martin Scorsese used in "Raging Bull" for much of the actors' dialog. It forces you to listen harder and it lulls you into a place where you're unprepared for the character to suddenly speak up loudly. When he does, the effect is powerful.
Benzali also has several moving sequences requiring sensitivity, including the ones with his troubled wife, Ann, played by Patricia Clarkson long before her acclaimed role in "Six Feet Under" and her Oscar-nominated performance in 1993's "Pieces of April." These scenes of Hoffman's family life crumbling under the pressure and intense media scrutiny of a televised trial are among the best-written in the series.
This same toned-down technique is used even more effectively by Stanley Tucci, who gives the other great performance in "Murder One." He plays Richard Cross as a man who speaks very precisely and in a very modulated tone. But when Cross barks at someone, showing his violent nature, it really snaps the viewer's head back. Tucci builds a character that you want to hate, but one who is often so charming and civil that you hate to see him leave the room.
Appearing with Benzali in the DVD featurette about the making of the series are Barbara Bosson, who was married to producer Bochco at the time of "Murder One," but later divorced him; Mary McCormack, who played overly-ambitious lawyer Justine Appleton; J.C. MacKenzie, who played nerdy lawyer Arnold Spivak, and Jason Gedrick, who played murder suspect Neil Avedon.
Benzali has nothing to say in the featurette about the rumored dispute between him and Bochco that caused him to leave the series after the first season, but he makes it clear Teddy Hoffman was a great role he feels privileged to have played. He has done nothing as significant as "Murder One" in the past decade.
Jason Gedrick seemed poised for major stardom after his very showy role in "Murder One" and, for a time, it seemed to be happening. He starred in the two immensely popular CBS miniseries taken from Mario Puzo's "The Last Don" novel and was one of the two leading actors in CBS' "EZ Streets," one of the most artfully-done, but least-watched dramas of the late 1990s. He hasn't had spectacular success lately, though.
I also thought sexy Bobbie Phillips, who played the scandalous older sister of the murdered girl, would become a movie headliner. Instead, she has found co-starring roles in a couple of syndicated action series, including "The Cape," and mostly played sex objects in low grade films and TV projects. You will enjoy hearing actor J.C. MacKenzie's remarks about how he felt when he discovered he was going to have lots of heavy kissing scenes with Phillips in "Murder One." Let's just say he wasn't exactly disappointed.
"Murder One" was a complex, but always engrossing courtroom mystery drama. Yet the fact that it played out in serial format kept it from becoming a major hit. ABC renewed it for a second season, but divided it into three separate trials. Anthony LaPaglia was brought in to replace Benzali, playing the law firm's new head lawyer, and several of the leading players didn't return, including Gedrick, Tucci and Phillips.
Ratings tanked and ABC dropped "Murder One" before it completed its second season. The third and final trial segment finally was played in the summer of 1997 as a separate "Murder One" miniseries. Though the series received several Emmy nominations, the only significant Emmy it won was in 1997 for actor Pruitt Taylor Vince, for outstanding performance by a guest actor in a drama.
The very best way to watch a serial drama like "Murder One"--or Fox's current "24," as a matter of fact--is to buy a DVD boxed set and try to absorb it all in a single week, which is what I did this past week. I loved this show when it first aired and it seemed even richer and more gripping the second time around, perhaps because there's nothing else like it around today except maybe "24."
©2005 by Ron Miller. The photo of Daniel Benzali and the DVD cover are courtesy of Steven Bochco Productions and 20th Century Fox television. This column first posted on March 21, 2005.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently writes about television mysteries for MYSTERY SCENE magazine and teaches classes in mystery for the Academy of Lifelong Learning at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
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