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Murder One Review

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by Chris McEneany Nov 1, 2005

    A little while ago, I had the fortune to review the first season of Steven Bochco's trend-setting legal drama, Murder One, and I was heartily impressed with the consistency of the writing, the excellent acting and the delicious moral murk that the show seemed to concoct. Above all though, it was the barnstorming performance from Daniel Benzali as the indomitable lawyer Teddy Hoffman, who stole the show. I could never tire of watching him strut his stuff on-screen, and even after watching the full run, I wanted to see more of this bravura character. So, it was with some dismay that I learned that, not only had the TV-format-busting notion of setting the story around one ongoing and labyrinthine plot been ditched in favour of a more attention-satisfying trio of smaller cases, but that Benzali's Hoffman wasn't even in the second season! Having not seen any of Season 2 back when it originally aired, this was a bit of a bombshell that, coupled with a few people warning me away from season 2 because they reckoned it was nowhere near as good, put me right off the idea. However, I have now had the opportunity to view this supposedly errant series with enough distance between it and the first season to allow its own identity to shine through. And, I have to say that I was more than pleasantly surprised as, despite a fresher style and a new leading man, the show still maintains the same high degree of writing, acting and directing talent and, once again, the same essence of darkness that made the backroom squabbling and the theme of the all-powerful playing with peoples' lives so addictive in the first place.

    “I've been a prosecutor for twelve years. I've tried forty-three murder cases and I've never lost one. Let me help you, Miss Rooney.”

    Starting shortly after the events of the first season, Murder One Season 2 sees Teddy Hoffman's elite legal team clutching for work of, shall we say, higher prestige, their calibre having risen considerably. With Teddy having apparently taken an extended vacation - he is namedropped a few times, particularly in reference to the Jessica Costello case and a few people still enquire as to his whereabouts - the lawyers he fine-tooled in J.C. MacKenzie's Arnold Spivak, Mary McCormack's adorable Justine Appleton and Michael Hayden's edgy Chris Docknovitch form the rock at the core of his empire. But the firm, along with the show, had to find a leading man, and that man had to have presence, style and intensity. Series creator Steven Bochco turned to the darkly suave Anthony LaPaglia, a familiar face from the movies, although still enough of an unknown quantity that he could roll into this carefully crafted world and shake it up without the audience jumping to any preconceptions. The shadow of Benzali was looming large over everything and it would certainly be a gamble to have the audience take to a new face. I'll admit that, at first, I thought this wasn't going to work. I kept seeing LaPaglia's face brooding out from John Landis's misfire Innocent Blood - all intense eyes but with little to back it up. However, I need not have worried, because LaPaglia is simply outstanding in the role of the crusading Jimmy Wyler, a former prosecuting attorney for the D.A. who makes the leap to high status defender when he sees a chance to enhance his reputation and more crucially, perhaps, make lots of money. And this, folks, is where Murder One ironically wins out again. For, although these lawyers fight tooth and nail for their client and morals do, once in a while, rear their ugly heads, these people are in this business primarily for success, celebrity and financial gain. It's a surprisingly honest examination of what makes these people tick.

    “We manage ... to win. Period. Got it?”

    Instead of tackling one colossal case that rocks society and the judiciary, the writers ensure that this time around, the firm will take on three separate cases throughout the course of the 18 episodes that make up this second run. Their thinking behind this was twofold, it seems. Firstly that, despite the success and the awards they had gained from the previous story, they wanted to go easy on the American public and give them some resolution after a quicker turnaround, just to keep them sweet. And secondly, the great Daniel Benzali had opted out of the show as he couldn't face such a long-gestating story-arc again - so, to keep a potential star such as LaPaglia happily on-board, they would keep the triumphs and the climaxes coming one after another without too much of a slow-burn interim of escalating complexity. And, to give them their due, it certainly works well with the three stories eating up this season, as they build successively (the first two actually leading into one another with a set of smart connections) and manage to gain momentum, in and out of the courtroom, as the series rockets towards its tremendous finale. Once again, the expert writing and wonderfully realised characterisation feeds the habit and makes judicial-junkies of us all.

    “Used to be us against them. Now ... you're them.”

    Wyler is a terrific character. He literally walks away from all he knew and fought for, his steady job and reliable income thrown to the wind, to take on a shaky client and new batch of employees. He, and they, personified by the ever-eager and ambitious Chris Docknovich, know the score. They all need each other if they are going to survive. Hoffman's team are a class act but they need a leader and Wyler needs the notoriety that their firm can provide. Together, they can go after the big cases - the showboating grandstand stuff - that will bring them fame and fortune. And their first case is to defend a young woman accused of murdering L.A.'s philandering mayor on the eve of his re-election. Starring Missy Crider as the sad and unfortunate Sharon Rooney, the show kicks off in fine style. Plenty of the requisite skulduggery and the dark, depraved twists and plot convolutions that made the first season so mind-blowing and enjoyable are confidently paraded as Wyler seeks to utilise every trick in the book to help a suspect who has all the evidence stacked up against her - even down to her own confession. The smart play here is that he consciously makes the decision to fight for her whether she did the crime or not. This, in fact, is typical of his entire approach to defence counsel with many initial meetings running along the lines of a pathetic and confused accused simply stating that “Yes, I killed him,” to which Jimmy quite forcefully advises, “I don't ever want to hear you say that again.” But you can clearly imagine him also suggesting, “Now, let's find some way to get you off, eh?” I'm pretty sure that Rumpole Of The Bailey wasn't like this. Who remembers that then?

    “Whatever I decide will not be based on race.”

    “This is L.A., Chris. Everything is decided on race.”

    Wyler is a forthright lawyer and makes clear-cut decisions, but all along the way we get the feeling that there is hesitation, hope and fear lurking just beneath his cool façade. He is not quite the dynamic powerhouse that Teddy Hoffman was, and LaPaglia is not quite the equal of Benzali. But he still finds the right niche in which to place his character and mould him into something unique. Wyler has problems - financial, professional and, ultimately, personal - but when he switches on to the job, he gathers speed and spirit, achieving a personable intensity that makes him eminently watchable. When sudden revelations knock the wind out of him, LaPaglia makes a genuine internal reaction that is seen only in a flicker of the eyes or a setting of his jaw. Teddy Hoffman would elicit no such giveaways, but it is perhaps more convincing to have Wyler battle his own shocks and attempt to spring back from them. There is also a nice backstory detailing his family's involvement with the manipulating figure of the powerful Malcolm Dietrich (played by Papa Walton, Ralph Waite) that sees strings being pulled and hooks being placed. His predicament is also nicely etched with the on-going Roger Garfield rivalry - a holdover from the first season.

    “I'm not going to wait a second ... and don't call me Jimmy!”

    The second case involving NBA superstar Ricky Latrelle (Rick Worthy) accused of killing his team's owner sees the in-fighting on Wyler's own team begining to spiral. New lawyer Aaron Mosely (D.B. Woodside) and Chris Docknovich provide plenty of disgruntled angst amid the complex legalities as they vie for prominence, both as ambitious as one another. Justine Appleton gets some romance from a direction that would have been unthinkable in Teddy's day and continues to traipse behind the leading lights down corridors affording lots of short-skirted views. Another plus. But poor Arnold Spivak seems to have upped the comedy level that he had begun to foster in the first season and, sadly he doesn't get the female action that he once did. Barbara Bosson's Prosecuting Attorney, Miriam Grasso, is back in a good meaty role that sees her continually butting heads with Wyler, and the team is also ably supported by Clayton Rohner's detective Vince Baggio and Jack Kehler's P.I. Frank Szymanski. The show also benefits from the return of sleazeball movie producer Gary Blondo (John Pleshette). On a technical point, the look of the show is just as atmospheric as its predecessor, with a warm hue and rich texture to the courts and the offices, lots of wide angle photography employed in conjunction with close-ups, effecting an up-close-and-personal approach that makes it stand out from the crowd.

    “By Society's standards, I'm a murderer. By my standards, I'm an executioner.”

    But it is with the third case that Jimmy Wyler takes - the defence of a serial killer called Clifford Banks (a marvellous turn from unusual character-actor, Pruitt Taylor Vince) who has been murdering violent criminals - that the season finds its indelible mark. American films and TV seem to thrive on creating captivating monsters - at once empathetic and horrifying - and Banks is no exception. Lauded and reviled by a media and a society that cannot decide if he's a good guy or a bad guy, Banks finds sustenance in his own notoriety. Even Gary Blondo sees an opportunity here for a movie sensation - though he foolishly thinks that they ought to give the film incarnation of the celebrated killer a better profession than that of a lowly plumber - “It's so pizzazz-less!” Check out Banks' answer to that! Playing an off-shoot of the usual Hannibal Lector-type, Banks manages to twist people around his grubby finger, his skittering eyes, often fragile voice and confused expression perhaps a mask to the real insanity lurking beneath. Pruitt Tayor Vince is outstanding in the role. The way that he can explode from aching vulnerability to full-on psychopath and then reduce it all with a little playful giggle to cap it off is brilliant. The direct threat posed by the final case provides a real razor's edge injection of suspense that takes Murder One to a new level.

    So, with all the ingredients woven skilfully into place - those of sex, jealousy, blackmail and murder - Season 2 has a terrific line-up of twists and turns. The ethics often come across as more than slightly iffy, and the whole legal wrangling that takes place, as convoluted and perplexing as it is, still leads you to suspect that they are more interested in the professional challenge and its rewards than the actual guilt or innocence of their client - just have a look at the way in which they select, or reject, a jury member, for instance. I like the description of “defence hypotheticals” too, and the loving discourse offered on the ramshackle efficiency of a .22 bullet bouncing around inside a skull. The verbals still carry a clever degree of cut and thrust, making the interplay always something quotable. Overall, this is an excellent show. It may lack the weight of Benzali, but LaPaglia gives it his all.