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Murder One Review

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by Chris McEneany Sep 1, 2005

    “Don't you sometimes make yourself sick?”

    Sometimes, your Honour.”

    Back in the mid-nineties, prolific, and highly-lauded TV show creator Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, LA Law, NYPD Blue) took on an epic gamble. He created a show that would literally transform the template for televised drama and force an unwitting America to tune in religiously from September 1995 to the Spring of the following year, as they followed the colossal plot of a single murder trial over its vast, and incredibly complex, duration. Unfortunately, this gamble didn't quite pay off as handsomely as expected. America found Murder One's far-reaching storyline too sprawling, and somewhat unattainable. They liked their weekly shows to come bottled and labelled with a tight beginning, middle and end to each and every episode. They wanted little stories neatly sown up within that forty-five minute slot. God forbid they be made to wait for clues and a tricky, convoluted plot to unravel at a slow-drip rate, forcing them to speculate issues and theories and use their own imaginations to debate and ponder. That the show's groundbreaking format was altered for its second, and final, season is testimony to the network's incredible lack of foresight, and lowly pandering to the attention-deficit of its simpering, ill-informed audience. Emmy Awards notwithstanding, the show sank at the end of its truncated and crippled second run. But, of course, as with any great and unique work of art, time is the ultimate defender and now, Murder One Season One has attained a tremendous cult following that places it back at the top of its game. Audacious, for sure; elaborate, by necessity - Murder One is a monster that cannot be tamed. For those of you who have seen it and remember it, there is much more to cherish here than simply the monumental outcome of the trial. And, for those of you who have not yet witnessed the incredible performances, the intricate storytelling and the huge, yet immediate and embracing, powerhouse that is Daniel Benzali, then I truly envy you, for you have much to discover.

    “It's a long way from cheating on your wife, to killing a fifteen year old.”

    Over the course of twenty-three episodes, Murder One examines the extreme judicial investigation and media-frenzy surrounding the killing of a fifteen year old girl, Jessica Costello, whose naked body is found tied to her bedpost, the victim of strangulation. Right from the outset, two principal suspects are hurled into the limelight. The first is millionaire businessman Richard Cross (an expertly slimy Stanley Tucci), an entrepreneurial philanthropist and all-round manipulator, and the second is Hollywood's man-of-the-moment and devil-may-care, teen-idol Neil Avedon (a career-best from Jason Gedrick). Both men will utilise the awesome legal methods of leading LA lawyer, Ted Hoffman (the astonishingly powerful Benzali) and his outstanding team of passionate go-getters but, whilst a convenient alibi frees Cross and leaves Avedon as the key suspect, it is clear that both men are hiding a very great deal. With Hoffman now defending Avedon and seemingly irrefutable evidence damning the young actor every step of the way, the challenge is thrown down to prove his innocence. But it's not going to be easy for any, and all, concerned. Representing the People is the esteemed DA Miriam Grasso (a pitch-perfect Barbara Bosson), Hoffman's foil in many respects and a very intelligent rival, and the stage is set for one gargantuan conflict that will take in multiple deceptions, spellbinding revelations, murders, lies and more controversy than the OJ Simpson trial. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, stand by your beds and pay strict attention, because you too, will have your work cut out with this case. To say more of the plot - its truly staggering number of twists and turns notwithstanding - would be a crime in itself, and worthy of placing me in the dock, so from this point on we will deliberate no further on those proceedings and, instead, turn our attention to the evidence that proves how great this show truly is.

    “You think I'm evil incarnate, don't you?”

    “Are you, Richard?”

    The backbone, and undisputed star of the show is Daniel Benzali. Period. Looking like a cross between a pale Shrek and the mutant brother from The Goonies (oh, I hope I don't meet him after saying that!) Benzali is hardly your average leading man. But the sheer power and charisma exuding from this stocky bull of a man is enough to set the screen alight. His awesome confidence is matched by such a riveting command of dialogue and presence that even the faintest flicker of an eye delivers electrifying tension. His low growl of a voice is hardly mellifluous yet he leaves you hanging on his every word, breathlessly awaiting his next seething broadside. From the very first episode he carries an arrogant swagger that befits his incredible intellect, his lust for justice and his fearsome appetite for a challenge. He cuts through the jargon because he knows it inside-out and back-to-front, his smooth wordplay could talk a suicide out of jumping, or send a man out to certain death, and yet he can still make his young daughter chuckle with delight. His lumpy face barely cracks a smile, but when those eyes soften you almost breathe a sigh of relief for him. He may be a Colossus in the courtroom but we never for one minute forget the immense pressure that he puts himself under in the service of his client. Benzali is an acting master-class, a tour de force. When he is onscreen he commands it, when he is off, his spirit still lingers, pervading all else. And that arrogant swagger? Watch as the season progresses how it seems to evolve from surly intimidation to raw defiance and then almost to a defence mechanism. It's just a walk - but look at how he uses it as circumstances change. Outward emotion is forever caged but you know and feel every surprise, every heartache, every victory that he goes through. Partly this is down to the crafty cinematography of the show, unusually cropping the tops of characters' heads and allowing us huge close-ups of faces so that every nuance, every facial tick is magnified, but mainly this is due to Benzali's acute intensity, his barnstorming performance here unequalled in any television drama, either side of the pond.

    “You're a suspect.”

    “Well, can they arrest me?”

    “Of course they can.”

    But, just as Benzali takes centre-stage, Murder One falls back on an exceptional all-round cast that maintains his extremely high standard. Stanley Tucci seems to scream oily bad boy from his very first scene. He literally makes the skin crawl - his power, his influence, his steady assembly line of gorgeous girls all notch him up to be the obvious villain of the piece. That he actually carries this burden with an ongoing aplomb that never descends into parody is a mark of genius. Throughout many, many twists that implicate him, exonerate him, or are just contrived by him, he keeps that sleazy smirk fixed upon his face without it ever seeming false or just part of a one-note character shtick. And I absolutely guarantee that come a pivotal moment, he will induce from you a tear or two. A very skilled depiction, folks, of a man who has sold his soul yet desperately wants a part of it back. In direct contrast, Jason Gedrick is a model of vulnerability and edgy self-preservation - but all those playboy good looks and wild boy lifestyle cannot hide the fact that he's riddled with trauma and guilt on the inside. Again, the character of Neil Avedon could have been simplistic and shallow, but Gedrick raises his game to the level of his colleagues and his horrifying odyssey is an often squirm-inducing experience. Hoffman's team of lawyers too, generate warmth and empathy. They act well together as an ensemble and also during their own solo sojourns. Mary McCormack is especially good as his ambitious protégé, and if a slightly unlikely romance between Lisa (the hypnotic-eyed Grace Phillips) and Chris develops, then at least there is something positive happening as the show hurtles despairingly towards that eventual showdown.

    “There was a time when you were judged by the way you lived and not by the words you could string together.”

    The screenplay is an inspirational font, from the witty and conniving masquerades led by many characters to the rich and wonderful moments of soul-searching advice from Hoffman in his self-styled time-out moments. There is terrific lawyer-to-lawyer banter, from courtroom combat to bizarre out-of-the-arena kinship. The backroom scheming is immersive, involving and fast-played, with a script that is constantly on the go - impulsive, snappy and often laced with eloquence. For the American audience that couldn't get through an episode (or Chapter, as the show called them) without some kind of resolution, or pay-off at the end, the show did offer some reward in the form of the many varied cases that the firm undertook as well the big trial. This LA Law section, however, is actually almost as interesting again, with lots of these little cases managing to add resonance to the bigger picture - be it character building or actual themes that will eventually coalesce into the vital core of defence. They also offer up evidence for, and against, these heroic lawyers, proving that there is always a price to pay for justice. Look no further than Hill Street Blues' Joe Spano, as noble cop, Ray Velacek, forced to retire just for doing his job. Luckily for us, and Ted Hoffman, though, he won't be going too far away. And, on the subject of the police - how about Dylan Baker's fabulously icy cop Paulson? A dogged detective for sure, but definitely not the kind of law enforcer you'd like arriving on your doorstep. Check out the cute Videodrome quip about an incriminating videotape's ability to bite, too, and a nice discourse on the evil of a man's soul, that plays like a modern-day Shakespearean verse.

    “Ninety percent of you wants to be careful, and ten percent of you wants to tempt fate.”

    Every twist seems plausible, and the fact that we buy each snippet of evidence that we are meant to, whilst dismissing all that we are informed is junk, is emblematic of deft and mature writing. We are just as manipulated as the suspects and the lawyers and the media waiting outside the court for its pound of flesh. And, just as with Hoffman's beleaguered troops, moments of ambiguity and indecision trip us up too. But when the threat comes (we are talking from Chapter 5 onwards) and events take a tragically sinister turn, we really feel the odds stacking up, and the tone shifts the drama out of the cosy courtroom escapades and investigative conundrums and into a deadly game of cat and mouse. The spiralling set-ups, the complex conspiracies and the far-reaching tendrils of implication and accusation ensure that Murder One maintains a momentum that never lets up. Layer upon layer, chapter after chapter, character dissemination becomes worthy endeavour, the whole legal machine becoming dependent upon each and every cog within its vast mechanism to assure victory in the eyes of a predatory legal system. It becomes clear that everything has relevance, and bearing, finally allowing all the pieces of this huge and elaborate jigsaw puzzle to collide and/or connect with a powerful and gut-wrenching denouement. It's an incredible juggling act to keep a beast of this size and stature on course throughout such a lengthy journey, but Bochco's team of writers and directors have pulled it off with expertise and finesse. A remarkable show all round. Not one that can be casually dipped into by the uninitiated but, nevertheless, one that gains steadily from repeat viewing.

    “Why don't you go talk to Mr. Blondo?”

    It is worth mentioning that this R1 release comes in a cool zipped-up bodybag slip-case - much better than the stereotypical cast line-up that adorns the R2 version.