TNT may be selling the single-case-per-season timeline of its new detective drama, but amid television's recent age of Aquarius, "Murder in the First" stands out mostly for its simplicity. The show, which premieres Monday, investigates a series of murders as its two detectives travel a long and switchback-laced journey from a junkie's dive to the gleaming halls of tech-fueled excess.
Let the other shows fiddle with their tonal hemlines, structural silhouettes and genre blends; creators Steven Bochco and Eric Lodal are sticking with the classics, and it's a very good look for summer.
The murder investigation is television's brawniest workhorse, and there's a reason — in terms of action, psychological drama, character development and high-stakes tension, it's hard to beat a good detective show. But ubiquity should not be confused with ease of manufacture. It's tough to make a good investigative procedural, as Bochco knows well. For every "Hill Street Blues" or "NYPD Blue," there are plenty of misfires.
"Murder in the First," a masterfully paced balance of tricky whodunit and character development, seems to have benefited from both Bochco's hits and the misses, as well as the cable-led experimentation with shorter seasons. And its tightly focused single story works better over 11 episodes than 23.
It certainly does not hurt that the two detectives in question are played by Taye Diggs ("Private Practice") and Kathleen Robertson ("Boss"), performers with great chemistry who easily handle the multitasking required of modern television detectives.
As opening scenes make clear, Hildy Mulligan (Robertson) and Terry English (Diggs) aren't just ace San Francisco homicide detectives, they're people dealing with challenges and crises of their own. Hildy is an at-times overwhelmed divorced mother; Terry is caring for his terminally ill wife.
And though "Murder in the First" does not go through the mirror as darkly — Hildy and Terry are unquestionably good cops — the tension between work and family affects both in real if slightly romanticized ways. (Hats off to whoever added the grace note of Hildy buttering her daughter's toast with the butter wrapper.)
The rest of the casting is just as good. The murder of a junkie quickly leads to Eric Blunt, a wizard of Silicon Valley played with masterful menace by "Harry Potter's" Tom Felton. Blunt, in turn, is surrounded by lawyers of such high caliber that they are played by Richard Schiff and James Cromwell (no slouch in the menace department himself), as well as Steven Weber, as Blunt's pilot/driver.
The first three episodes reveal an investigation that could collide with someone's tantalizingly complex long game and will certainly turn, and turn again, before it's finished. The squad room is so thoroughly modern that the only open flirting is being done among the women (although there is a very "Hill Street Blues-ian" relationship too), which is refreshing, if a little contrived.
More important is how the team of Mulligan and English solidify the relatively new notion that a woman and a man can be a strong team with no sexual tension required.
With a perpetual cliff hanger built into the concept, "Murder in the First" will certainly test our viewing habits — if nothing else, it has "binge watch" written all over it.
'Murder in the First'
When: 10 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DLSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language, sex and violence)