Making the case for 'Murder One'

September 19, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The judge puts her hand over the microphone, leans down from the bench and asks the attorney standing before her, "Don't you sometimes make yourself sick?"

"Sometimes, your honor," the attorney says with an enigmatic smile.

Welcome to "Murder One," Steven Bochco's dark vision of the criminal justice system -- by far the best new drama of the TV season.

The lawyer in that opening scene is Theodore Hoffman (Daniel Benzali), the attorney every Hollywood celebrity and millionaire wants when they find themselves facing an indictment. He's cock of the walk at the Los Angeles County Criminal Courts Building.

Some viewers are going to love Hoffman, and some are going to really, really hate him. But he's the one new television character this fall who will not be ignored.

Ostensibly, "Murder One" is about the murder investigation of a 15-year-old girl "found naked, tied up and strangled -- with drugs all over the place," in the words of the LAPD. Hoffman is defending a philanthropist and entrepreneur named Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), who is "up to his hips" in drugs, sex and the girl's murder, according to the cops.

"Murder One" will follow this one case all season. And, based on the pilot, there are more than enough elements and characters in the case to hold viewers.

But the murder investigation and arrest of Cross are not what "Murder One" is really about. The ABC series is really about the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and the trial of O. J. Simpson. The connection Bochco makes to that realm of the national psyche is what accounts for all the buzz surrounding "Murder One" -- as well as the tingle in your spine you'll feel from the first visual image in tonight's pilot at 10 on WMAR (Channel 2).

The first shot is a close-up of the L.A. County Criminal Courts Building -- the one we've seen for months on CNN and Court TV in coverage of the Simpson trial.

But Bochco's cameras take us to the one place the news organizations can't: behind closed doors with the high-priced superlawyers, to see how they operate and if they don't sometimes make themselves sick.

In the first sequence tonight, we stand in a stairwell with Hoffman and a young, coked-out movie star (Jason Gedrick) who is about to appear before a judge for killing a swan in a fountain at a Beverly Hills hotel and punching out a hotel security guard. He's a punk, but he's Hoffman's punk, and the lawyer tells his client how to behave in court.

Through the hour, we move deeper into Hoffman's private realm. First, into his office to hear what he says to clients when deciding to take their cases. Then, into his home to hear what he says when his wife asks him if he thinks Cross killed the 15-year-old.

Finally, we close in on his daughter's bedroom late at night, with the little girl staring at her father's flickering image in front of the courthouse as it plays on her TV screen.

Bochco has been telling interviewers that "Murder One" is not about the Simpson case. And, in a literal sense that is true. Hoffman is not Robert Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran or F. Lee Bailey. He's all of them and every other strutting, big-bucks celebrity lawyer who has learned to manipulate the legal system and the media.

"Murder One" is profound, brilliant, mesmerizing and scary.

This is not the place for an essay on the vision of Steven Bochco. But, if you go back to "Hill Street Blues" and follow through to "NYPD Blue," you'll see a world view that says the American criminal justice and legal systems are out of control.

And now comes Theodore Hoffman -- the lawyer as Nietzschean superman. He's a new kind of American anti-hero, who thrives in the chaos of a collapsing legal system, whose visage fills our television screens and, thus, our waking thoughts and sleeping dreams.

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