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‘Murder’ Vexing to Very End

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Now, here’s the thing.

Would Teddy Hoffman have climbed down from one of his lofty moral imperatives to bundle up a hundred grand to grease a judge? An actual bribe? One of the most renowned, successful defense attorneys in Los Angeles taking such a risk with his career and livelihood, to say nothing of his standing with viewers? Hmmmmm. And furthermore . . .

Oh . . .

You’re feeling left out? You’ve not watched “Murder One” regularly or at all? You weren’t among the cult of loyalists who got hooked on this more-debated-than-watched ABC crime series, which ended its first--and perhaps only--season with back-to-back episodes Monday and Tuesday nights?

Then, take a long coffee break, and see ya back here Friday.

Meanwhile, back to the twisty case that drove this series since its highly touted debut last September: the murder of 15-year-old playgirl Jessica Costello, for which cocky movie star Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) was ultimately tried and, as viewers learned from Monday’s double-sized installment, convicted--despite a stout defense by super-lawyer Hoffman (Daniel Benzali). Then on Tuesday, Avedon was set free.

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Ah, great stuff--great enough to earn a second season.

“Murder One” limped through this one, initially getting creamed on Thursday nights against NBC’s omnipotent “ER,” then faring somewhat better on Monday nights. But not sufficiently to ensure more life, especially on a network with no apparent 10 p.m. openings (“Monday Night Football” returns in the fall) beyond the Thursday night minefield that earlier all but blew “Murder One” to smithereens.

Thus, ABC has not said whether it will renew Steven Bochco’s legal noir, whose frequent crescendos of excellence sent the series soaring to the stratospheres of television in terms of acting, storytelling and production quality.

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Take Monday’s verdict sequence, for example, when waves of throbbing-headache music preceded a tense guilty pronouncement. Avedon’s stunned response flooded you with his panic and despair, putting you inside his head.

You won’t find much on TV equaling either that or the after-verdict sequences that for once eavesdropped on the office and staff of the losing side, while winning prosecutor Miriam Grasso (Barbara Bosson) went before the cameras to deliver the victory speech that Marcia Clark had hoped to make.

And because this is the ‘90s, on came the media tornado and obligatory post-trial spins on CNN with Larry King, a familiar red carpet to legal silk stockings like Hoffman. “It’s nice to be back,” he said while getting made up beside Grasso.

Those who watched this week know also that Avedon was exonerated by the discovery of a secret videotape of Jessica’s murder, which was injected at the end of Monday night’s episode in a mini-cliffhanger that artfully obscured the real killer’s identity. Until Tuesday, that is, when the entire tape was run and authenticated by its owner, AIDS-ravaged Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), in a courtroom version of a deathbed confession. It turned out that he had framed Avedon to protect the real killer, a drug kingpin fearsome enough to menace even the menacing Cross.

More great stuff, even though the episode then proceeded to stagger onward in its ebbing minutes like someone desperately searching for water in a desert.

The series had its own plot zigzags. Before it departed Tuesday, Hoffman had rehired wayward attorney Justine Appleton (Mary McCormack), after having fired her earlier in the season for hanging out with the shady Cross. His once-arrogant client, Avedon, had finally renounced the debauchery of his ways. Hoffman’s former snotty nemesis, Det. Arthur Polson (Dylan Baker), had become his ally. And his divorce from Georgia (Patricia Clarkson) seemed complete (with the couple splitting several million in assets), although she didn’t close the door to reconciliation.

It remains to be seen whether viewers alienated by these characters--their low likability seemed a factor in the show’s misfortunes--get a shot at reconciling with “Murder One.”

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Regardless, it was a series in which prolific Mike Post delivered his most arresting score, Bosson (Bochco’s wife) did her best work and Tucci (whose most memorable TV gig previously was in ABC’s “thirtysomething” as a ruthless ad man) was superb as someone whose subdued loathsomeness clouded the entirety of “Murder One.”

Most of all, though, the series gave Benzali an indelible TV face via a grunting, ever-somber Hoffman, who appeared constipated every time he sought to smile and was never the warm sort that a viewer could cozy up to, or perhaps even like.

Not only did “Murder One” not soften him this week in its campaign to win renewal by ABC, but it ended in a curious way that darkened him further by having him ready to commit a crime to gain his client’s freedom.

It happened this way: Prior to the discovery of the vindicating murder tape, when Avedon seemed doomed to life imprisonment, Hoffman rejected an offer from an appeals court judge to have the guilty verdict overturned for $100,000. It could be a trap, Hoffman told his young associate, through whom the offer was made. Even more than that, he sermonized, bribing a judge would be wrong.

Amen, applause. That was classic Hoffman, willing to push against or perhaps even bend the law on behalf of a client, but never to break it.

But Tuesday’s windup found him opening an attache stuffed with cash to reveal to the same young attorney that, despite his previous moralizing, he would have made the bribe had things gone less favorably for Avedon. That went against the Hoffman of old and, you would think, against the interests of a series seeking to win viewers, not feed their cynicism about its central character. A character who needs a second season to patch things up.


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