Having made “Hill Street Blues” and “NYPD Blue,” the producer who has given television some of its most memorable police teams is attempting it again.
Steven Bochco gets back in the series game with “Murder in the First,” a TNT drama that — not unlike his 1995-97 ABC show “Murder One” — tracks one case over an entire season starting Monday (June 9). Taye Diggs (“Private Practice”) and Kathleen Robertson (“Boss”) play San Francisco homicide partners who determine two killings have links to an aggressively self-assured young Silicon Valley tycoon (Tom Felton, alias Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies).
“We spent a lot of time hanging with homicide detectives in San Francisco,” says Bochco, who’s associated with writer-producer Eric Lodal on the project, “and it’s a different world than it was 15 or 20 years ago.
“The gender lines have blurred enormously,” Bochco tells Zap2it. “There’s a lot of easy back-and-forth between the men and women, and there’s not that sort of old-school mistrust that older male detectives had for women. That’s very refreshing, and there’s also more of an informality in the environment, which is nice.”
Those aspects clearly inform the professional partnership of Terry English (Diggs) and Hildy Mulligan (Robertson) as each struggles with personal dilemmas. She’s a single mother trying to keep bill collectors at bay, while he has a critically ill wife at home. When it comes to doing their jobs, they try to be of one mind — though that doesn’t always work, as “Murder in the First” proves right from the opening episode.
“Steven explained to me that it’s very important for him to know the person” who’s playing a role, says Robertson, also seen recently on A&E Network’s “Bates Motel” and well remembered as the willful Clare Arnold on “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“Then he can write to them, and he has the true essence of who they are. I’m sure when he met with me and Taye separately, that was part of the decision … like, ‘These two would be an very interesting combination.’
“I approach things in a very specific way,” Robertson allows. “My energy is very different from Taye’s, since he’s very much a quiet observer. I’m much more the person who asks 101 questions. I’m a writer as well, so I kind of come at everything from that brain.”
After six seasons on ABC’s “Private Practice,” Diggs agrees he’s playing Terry on “Murder in the First” as moody, with the occasional outburst. “I’ve always come from the school of ‘less is more,’ ” he reasons, “so it’s been great to sink into the stillness of this character, even though he can fly off the handle when a situation taunts him. Generally speaking, this guy is deliberate and slow and concentrated, and it’s been a refreshing departure.”
So has the premise of a single story that spans one season. “It allows us to really take advantage of the opportunity to live and move in a character, without the broad strokes you have to have in a closed-end episode,” Diggs reflects.
Previously a Broadway star in “Rent” and “Carousel,” Diggs is glad to be back in San Francisco, which he calls “definitely a friend of mine. I love working there, and it’s always good to go there to shoot exteriors for this.”
Bochco confirms he finds it “really wonderful to watch” Diggs and Robertson together. “Kathleen is so forward, you can read her face; every moment, stuff is going on there, but Taye is kind of laid-back. Emotionally, he plays his cards closer to the vest and doesn’t reveal as much of himself as easily. To explore the way two cops learn to be intimate with each other when they have such different personalities is really interesting.”
Another of Bochco’s joys in assembling the “Murder in the First” cast lies in re-enlisting familiar faces he’s employed in other series, including Richard Schiff (“Brooklyn South”), Peter Onorati (“Civil Wars”) and Currie Graham (an “NYPD Blue” alum who returned for Bochco’s previous TNT show, “Raising the Bar”). James Cromwell (“Betrayal”) and Steven Weber (“Wings”) also are among the major players.
“One of the things that’s so great about doing a show like ‘Murder in the First,’ ” Bochco reasons, “where you have a single story arc for one season, is that you can access actors who normally aren’t going to sign up for five years.”
By the same token, Bochco says devising a 10-episode cable season instead of a 22-episode broadcast order “eliminates pretty much all the bagel dough. Sustaining 22 can be really hard, especially when you don’t know where you’re going to end. I didn’t figure out the ending of ‘Murder One’ until I was about 15 episodes in.”
While Bochco allows “there are certain similarities” to that earlier show in following one main story through one season, “What’s different — and what I like so much about this one — is that it starts out as a police-driven murder mystery, and as it develops, it becomes a legal drama. And then, it circles back and becomes a police drama again.
“One of the things that’s so terrific about San Francisco for us, conceptually,” adds Bochco, “is that the entire criminal justice system is housed in one building: the police department, the court system, the D.A.’s office the jail, the medical examiner. The way you can cross-pollinate and have everybody accessing everybody, pretty much at a moment’s notice, makes it really fun. San Francisco is unique that way.”