"Murder in the First"—TNT may be promoting the single-case-per-season time line of its new detective drama, but "Murder in the First" stands out mostly for its simplicity: To investigate a series of murders, two detectives travel a long and switchbacked journey from a junkie's dive to the gleaming halls of tech-fueled excess.
It certainly does not hurt that the two detectives in question are played by Taye Diggs ("Private Practice") and Kathleen Robertson ("Boss"), performers who easily the 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 carrying 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 arenas 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 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.
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. TNT, Mondays, 10 p.m.
"Orange Is the New Black"—The new season arriving on Netflix at 12:01 a.m. Friday continues Piper Chapman's (Taylor Schilling) journey from privileged yuppie to self-aware survivor of penal incarceration. More importantly, it continues to deliver the most powerfully eclectic cast of characters, female or male, on any screen today. Netflix, anytime.
"Crossbones"—John Malkovich as a low-talking, pajama-wearing, Col. Kurtzian Blackbeard is certainly the main draw of NBC's new pirate drama "Crossbones," but he's not the only one.
Slip-streaming the more hyper-paced (and R-rated) "Black Sails" on Starz, "Crossbones" may have a similar conceit — pirates are people too! — but its ambitions are driven more by character than plot.
Gorgeously produced, with lots of groovy period details (island contraception gets a shout out), "Crossbones" is a journey through space and time. But its heart is the surprisingly hypnotic game of psychological cat and mouse played by Blackbeard and Tom Lowe (Richard Coyle), the man who has been sent to kill him. That's not going to happen, of course, or at least not in any timely fashion. The question is: What will? NBC, Fridays, 9 p.m.
"Halt and Catch Fire"—The tale of a trio of visionaries at a midlevel Texas computer company who attempt to outsmart the big boys of the tech industry during the 1980s does not sound like the stuff of great television, but then neither did the story of Madison Avenue ad man making his name in the early '60s. And while the pilot of AMC's latest character-driven drama doesn't hit the gloriously high bar set by the opening episode of "Mad Men," it is compelling nonetheless.
With a title that refers to a computer term and an opening that speaks for itself — sales whiz Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) enters frame, and the Lone Star state, by running down an armadillo — "Halt and Catch Fire" quickly establishes characters that both transcend and energize the particulars of its story.
MacMillan is a fast-talking alpha male maverick who quickly hooks up — cue cable-friendly abandon — with early coder-cool prototype Cameron (Makenzie Davis), a savant in a pixie cut who also realizes that tech is not an industry so much as a nascent revolution.
Not that MacMillan's new employer, Cardiff Electric, is buying. But MacMillan didn't come to Texas for the waters. He came to enlist the aid of the brilliant but stalled-out engineer Gordon Clark (Scot McNairy). In the late '70s, Clark developed his own version of personal computer than never quite worked. Now he is just another grind, trying to keep his family afloat, while his wife (Kerry Bishe), who works as a programmer for a toy company, looks on in frustration and despair.