Is TNT’s ‘Murder in the First’ TV’s Next Great Police Drama?

Murder in the First opens with Detective Hildy (Kathleen Robertson) waking up, groggily getting herself ready for work and her daughter ready for school in their small San Francisco home. If not for the moment when Hildy tosses her loaded gun in her purse, the scene would be as mundane as any other morning routine. From there we cut to Detective Terry (Taye Diggs) in a hospital room sitting beside his dying wife. A good 10 minutes into the pilot and we have not set foot inside the station yet– and that is why Murder in the First works on every level.

The case involving two dead bodies and a silicon valley genius cut from the Mark Zuckerberg mold and played with scenery-chewing glee by Harry Potter‘s Tom Felton unfurls in due time, but the bulk of the pilot is devoted to establishing who Hildy and Terry are, where they are in their lives and how they relate to each other. Created by the great Steven Bochco (NYPD Blue) who wrote the playbook on making police dramas as much about the men and women who solve the crimes as the crimes themselves, Murder in the First understands the value of connecting the audience to the characters before the crime. Without giving too much away, I will say the first episode ends where your average procedural would begin and is all the better for it.

Murder in the First is not a procedural. Throughout the opening three hours we are reminded Hildy and Terry will be pursuing one case through all of its twists and bends this season, and we are also following two detectives whose personal lives are messy, emotional and ever present. The one season, one case format has been gaining ground since The Killing premiered four years ago leading most recently to the critical darling True Detective on HBO. While Murder in the First is not as stylistic as True Detective or as oppressively grim as The Killing, it is more accessible for a mass audience than either of those shows.

The sunny San Francisco setting makes for a beautiful, light backdrop for the mystery, just as it did in the classic 1971 film Dirty Harry. In fact, there is a bit of Harry in Terry, a man whose anger and grief overflows in the occasional act of violence. Diggs is brilliant at conveying the feeling Terry is balancing on a tightrope as he delves deeper into his work in an attempt to dull his pain. Sometimes his unorthodox methods are measured as they are in a scene where he scares two young boys into telling the truth, but in other moments he loses control completely. He has the edge of a Harry with the complexities of a fully fleshed out character dealing with a huge emotional blow while also trying to solve his case.

Hildy is Terry’s rock; always watching her partner, always keeping him in check. As a single mother, she has everything to lose in the high profile case she and Terry become entangled in, but Robertson keeps the character guarded. Her love for her work, her daughter and her partner shine through, but in practice she is far more measured than Terry. They create an effective team together and the chemistry between the duo is Murder in the First‘s bedrock.

The series’ problem area is in its dialogue. Felton is no stranger to playing the bad guy, but his tech genius Erich is a far cry from the sniveling Draco Malfoy. The only thing undercutting Felton’s subtle performance is the overwritten speeches he has to pull off. Likewise, the series attempts to shoehorn in jokes about juice cleanses and parking validation that never quite land. Murder in the First is not so heavy that it needs false comedic beats to work. If the writers can trust the audience to go on this journey with Hildy and Terry without attempting to force laughter out of us, the series will be much better off.

Murder in the First starts out slow and steady with the tension building with each episode, but the characters will grab you from the start. This show will be your first summer addiction if you have even the slightest interest in mysteries or sharp dramas. Watch the premiere tonight, Monday, June 9th at 10/9c on TNT, and then come back and let us know if you are hooked.

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