Murder in the First: Anything But A Typical Start

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Episode recaps

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Spoiler Alert

I am a sucker for anything that defies conventional expectations. If you are anything like me, you may have seen the promos and buildup for Murder in the First and chalked it up to just another Law and Order clone. Law and Order: San Francisco perhaps. Everything I saw lent itself to that idea. Every preview I saw during the NBA playoffs or searched on YouTube gave me the impression that this is a typical, procedural, investigation/law enforcement show. Two detective partners who look like they couldn’t be more opposite. Both in physical appearance and back story. A large “office” contingent who inevitably will come into play (i.e. fellow detectives, coroners, specialists, etc). Not to mention a series of characters and actors that clearly don’t look like recurring stars of the show, so they must by mid-high level cameos. As one would find on Law and Order. If this was a well done, well acted procedural detective show, it would have been worth a first look. If it was all of that with a few curve balls, even better. If they were able to completely dupe me into believing it is one thing just to reveal it is completely not, then it probably becomes a recurring feature here at NJATVS. I should have known. You don’t put Taye Diggs, Kathleen Robertson (Boss), Ian Anthony Dale (Hawaii Five-O), Chris Baker (Breaking Bad), Steven Weber (Wings), Tom Felton (Harry Potter), Richard Schiff (The West Wing) and whose creator is Steven Bochco without their being something significant to it.

Let me put this out there in an attempt to be as transparent as possible. The cast is more than solid for a show that only has 10 episodes in the can. However, if I’m truly honest with you, my attraction to this show was short-sighted. I enjoy Taye Diggs’ work. Ian Anthony Dale I would cast in any drama that needed his kind of skill set. The real heavy hitter though, is Kathleen Robertson. Don’t worry if you can’t place the name. She is a decent (not great) actress who has been in a few things. Namely, Boss despite the fact she is probably most well know as the third wheel in the original Beverly Hills 90210. Hopefully that is the last time you will ever see “Beverly Hills” and “90210” together on this site again. For some reason, I’m intrigued by anything that remotely fits my interests that she is a part of. Let’s be honest, unless you’re a film school grad, chances are it takes more than one aspect (i.e. casting) to draw your interest. If you were not interested before, let me put this in clearer terms. Murder in the First absolutely is not the procedural Law and Order clone they made it out to be.

As predictably as possible, Murder in the First starts out by showing you the very different home lives and stresses of the two partnering detectives, Det. Hildy Mulligan (Kathleen Robertson) and Det. Terry English (Taye Diggs). English, forced by limiting options has to endure the pain of watching his wife die slowly. Mulligan’s issues are much less dire. She clearly has a less than gentlemanly ex husband and a young daughter to raise. Regardless, these two carry their own baggage, how much that will play into the story is still up in the air.

Immediately following our quick glimpse into our main character’s back story, we fly directly into the crime of the day. This is the part where the unsuspecting viewer (me, in this case) begins to get lulled to sleep by way of the overtly predictable case details. Then an email is found.   I’m sorry but I have to mention the elephant in the room here. Our detectives are in a tenement where the murder of a junkie has taken place. The neighborhood is derelict. The people are unsavory. Our victim is eventually found to be a life-long junkie. For some reason though, he’s got the freedom in his life to not only own but correspond in email form by way of an Apple I-Pad. I’m just saying, that’s a little off at the very least. Getting back, the email is directed to Erich Blunt (Tom Felton), who naturally denies knowing anything about it. Immediately you get the impression of a young and volatile Steve Jobs type. We follow that story line long enough to feel we “get it”. Young, wealthy, arrogant, driven and in trouble with a blackmailer who claims he stole code. Could be Dorothy, could be the Witch. We’ll nail that down later. Suffice it to say your TV Spidey sense should be tingling by now. But, for some unexplainable reason, mine was not.

After following a series of leads, including Erich Blunt, we predictably head back into the home life. Of at least Det. English. His wife has been moved back home for hospice care, live in nurse and all. English is visibly shaken by the realization that hospice is the first step in giving up hope. There’s a short back and forth where English tries to hint at just how hard this is for him. He wants to take off work, but she won’t have it. Back at the office, English decides that a squeaky desk drawer needs to die. Really just an inanimate object that felt the culmination of his stress at that moment. Could have been worse. It could have been a person. Immediately after, Mulligan follows English to the room he entered post drawer assault. This is normal. Predictable to be sure. Partner goes in to say, “it’s alright, everyone understands what you’re going through” just to have the other person say, “Understand? What do they understand?” As no galloping shock to this viewer, they telegraphed that one. The interesting part about this scene is Mulligan’s tone and inflection. Now maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I give her too much credit. Maybe she just has a sultry way. But, I did get the impression that there is more there in her eyes when handling her partner. Or maybe my inner fan boy just wants there to be something there. Or maybe she’s just concerned for her partner’s mental state.

On a shot in the dark trek to Oakland, the home of the parent’s of the dead partner of the victim (22 years removed), an interesting detail surfaces. A haggard place. Bars on the windows. And very unsavory neighbors. English presents the photo to the father of deceased girl. “Do you know this man?” The man gets up to walk away and says, “Erich Blunt, I should. He’s my grandson.” It took me a second to get with the logic. The idea being that the victim they are investigating and the woman who died 22 years ago while serving as the current victim’s accomplice bore a child. That child somehow grew up to become our young Steve Jobs type, the Erich Blunt character. Who consequently, claimed he didn’t recognize the man who is his father and sent the email. Believe it or not, this is the segment of the show where I should be taking note of how this is not the show I thought it was. I was still pretty naive, even here. At this point, minute 33 of the recording, I still think it’s an episodic, procedural, detective show.

Naturally, while I’m thinking it’s business as usual, our detectives head back to visit with Erich Blunt. He and his lawyer (played by Richard Schiff) pull the “set up a time, we’d love to help but we’re late for a flight” number. Which naturally doesn’t work. We find that Blunt did in fact recognize the man and remembers the email. This is typical procedural drama stuff. This is the point when you are lead to believe the perpetrator of the crime cannot possibly be Blunt. He has motive. He is uncooperative. He’s arrogant. But we are just barely past the halfway point. This is where anyone whose every seen more than a couple of episodes of any Law and Order, Bones, House, CSI knows this is the part of the show where you eliminate this suspect from the list.

Blunt leaves his company’s building by saying, “If you want to arrest me for murder wait here, I’ll be back before dinner.” Following this quick meeting, Blunt and lawyer get on a plane to meet with the previously mentioned blackmailer and his lawyer. Let’s just sum it up by saying the meeting did not go well for the blackmailer. At one point, Blunt stands up leans in and says very intentionally, “I will take you to court. And I’m going to kill you. And when you’re dead and gone your tombstone will read, Jeremy Leonard (blackmailer) IRRELEVANT”. On the flight back, while pouring wine, the flight attendant (Blunt conveniently is intimate with) spills the wine due to turbulence. Blunt snaps, says some things, that include you’re fired. She breaks down where her fellow flight attendant and pilot (Steven Weber) can see. The lawyer informs Blunt that he can’t fire her if they are sleeping together. Blunt agrees and says, “I’ll take care of it”. This might be the first time I start to “get it”.

Our detectives follow a hunch after Det. Mulligan stares at a rubber ducky too long. Makes the connection that the tattoo on a suspects neck was a duck not a bird. After some interrogation, the suspect (played by Charles Baker, Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad) says something rude to Det. Mulligan. Det. English decides to take out the anger he feels in relation to his wife dying out on the suspect. Despite the behest of Det. Mulligan, English does not just walk away when the situation goes too far, as he did with the desk drawer. Mulligan demands, he go home and not to return until he’s in control of his emotions. One very cool detail from the perspective of the viewer. After the assault on the suspect, we see the boss (played by Hawaii Five-O’s Ian Anthony Davis) remove the recorded disc of the assault, tuck it and leave.

At home, English and his wife share some stories of earlier in their relationship. English breaks down. There is a hand-held embrace. A very nice moment. Taye Diggs did a great job selling the anguish.

Curious little trick they pulled at the 55 minute mark. Maybe TV’s done this before and I just fast forwarded through the commercials too quickly. Amidst the commercial break, they essentially did the “check our website for all the details you missed as we try to piece together what happened tonight”. Before the show was over. Now the wheels are turning.

Following the break we find the pilot and flight attendant #2 on the tarmac. Flight attendant #1 is missing. For the sake of clarity I’ll run through the basic thought process leading into the stretch run.  Blunt has been suspected (temporarily) of killing his biological father over attempted blackmail. Says, I will kill you to another guy blackmailing him. Regarding said flight attendant, “I’ll take care of it” and now she’s missing. How are they possibly going to tie up all the loose ends? The victim, the murderer and the why? All in the next four and a half minutes. The pilot gets the landlady to open the flight attendant’s condo. Predictably, she’s dead, naked, lying face down at the base of her stairs. The coroner on site states the obvious and indicates that we won’t have any answers from his office regarding the woman’s death anytime soon. While English goes to take a phone call, Mulligan finds multiple pictures of Blunt and the flight attendant in social settings. She looks up to find English, excited as she believes she’s uncovered something of major significance. Only to see English’s body language during his call go from normal to limp as he falls into a nearby chair. The look on Mulligan’s face says all you need to know. Just then, English’s tear filled eyes turn toward the camera (facing Mulligan), fade to black.

They end the episode without concluding anything! Please don’t mistake my typing tone. That is great news. In almost every single dramatic television series there is the battle between episodic story lines or episodes and big picture story lines or episodes. Murder in the First is not a procedural detective show at all. This show is telling one major story and using 10 episodes to do it. In the “Coming up this season on ____” teaser they revealed just enough to give you the impression of where this goes. More importantly, to steal a line from The Matrix, “to see just how far the rabbit hole goes”. This is not predictable, typical TNT type drama. This thing has legs. In hindsight, Murder in the First feels an awful lot like Graceland with a different subject matter. A show that at first glance feels far superior to the shows that generally inhabit said network. Every episode is a big picture episode. A show that was written in a manner to tell one big story instead of 10-13 little ones.

After one episode I cannot make any wild accusations that Murder in the First is the next Breaking Bad. I won’t even sniff that level of confidence. Though, considering the drivel that gets rolled out in the summer schedule, this show is comparatively remarkable. With shows like The Bridge and Under the Dome which were ratings winners and can stand behind garbage lines like, “The summer’s #1 hit” Murder in the First is a legitimate must watch. At least for now. I know it’s summer time. You’ve got cook outs, time with the kids, baseball and World Cup coming up. But this is definitely worth space on your DVR. That sentiment could change.  Intelligence had a great start too.  So only time will tell.  There is the possibility I’m just riding high on the fact that the pilot episode was much better than I expected it to be. But I doubt it. I love pilot episodes.  I believe you can discover a great deal about a series based on their pilot.  If last summer’s lineup is any indication, Graceland is the #1 drama of the summer. And unless something else comes along and does better, Murder in the First is the best new drama of the summer.  Add it to your DVR.  If by chance, you missed tonight’s pilot, it’s TNT.  I’m sure they will re-air it.

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