Reader, sometimes there are TV shows that make you ask, “Why?” Why did they make this show, why should I tell anyone to watch it, why do all these zeros and ones and ticks and tocks add up to a big fat time-suck? It’s an existential moment for a TV critic, as you can imagine, one involving angst-filled reflection about value and meaning and the fact that — OMG — man is a useless passion.
And often, it seems, the shows that make you ask, “Why?” are the very same shows that make you ask, “Why not?” Why not produce yet another cop series with a season-long murder case, why not tell people to watch it even though it’s not “The Wire,” why not accept the fact that time-sucks have an important place in the greater scheme of earthly things? Why not settle for a B- or a C+, instead of holding out for all A’s?
“Murder in the First,” which premieres on TNT Monday night at 9, sits squarely on that fence between “Why?” and “Why not?” Set in San Francisco, the 10-episode series will follow a murder investigation by two detectives, Taye Diggs’s Terry English and Kathleen Robertson’s Hildy Mulligan. The clues lead them all over the city, with suspects ranging from a low-life thug (Charles Baker, who was Skinny Pete on “Breaking Bad”) to a Silicon Valley tech king, played by Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies).
Naturally, the detectives are each dealing with personal issues; the days of the original “Law & Order,” where the cops and lawyers only seem to exist on the job, are long gone. Terry’s wife has terminal cancer, and he is struggling with denial over her diagnosis. At work, he’s all confrontation, but at home he’s burying his head in the sand. And Hildy is a divorced single mother struggling with loneliness and a difficult ex-husband. In one scene, we watch her suffer through a painful date with a self-involved lunkhead.
The “Why?” involves the fact that there are plenty of single-case cop procedurals on TV these days, and many of them — “True Detective,” “Broadchurch,” and “The Killing,” for example — are far more intelligent and atmospheric than “Murder in the First.” Of course, those more sophisticated series probably wouldn’t exist without the work of “Murder in the First” co-creator Steven Bochco. The respected producer helped define the TV crime genre with “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and one of the first single-case series ever made, “Murder One,” in 1995. But the students have overtaken the teacher, as “Murder in the First” feels so familiar and predictable.
We may not know whodunit from the first scenes of “Murder in the First,” but we do know that there will be shocking twists, and more shocking twists, until the twists are no longer shocking. All you need to do is notice that Steven Weber and Richard Schiff (with ponytail) are playing insignificant members of the ensemble to feel sure that at some point they will probably become more prominent, perhaps even as suspects. From the get-go, you also know that the cops will do things that are implausible and no one will even notice, much less call them out. You’ll almost want to watch the first episode and then check in at the very end of the season, to close the loop.
And the “Why not?” side of the coin? Sometimes a viewer just wants to watch a crime get solved without any agita, without any of the Big Questions or Social Issues that might make “Murder in the First” a more morally complicated and expansive experience. Sometimes, we want meat and potatoes instead of worldly cuisine. The characters may be shallow, but that doesn’t keep the show from giving the easy pleasures of reading a quickie mystery novel. And a few of the actors are entertaining despite the limitations of the script, notably Felton, who steals his scenes with the anarchic brattiness of King Joffrey from “Game of Thrones.”
Plus, San Francisco isn’t a bad backdrop for lots of chasing and handcuffing and blackmailing. When the story is flat, the city provides plenty of ups and downs.
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