There's something I don't get about television shows on DVD. I fully understand why they release so many different series. Two of the benchmarks of the evolution of TV shows on DVD occurred when they started to release "Star Trek' (in its many permutations) and "The Simpsons" on DVD. Selling phenomenally well, they created a new revenue stream for these shows. Considering that both play consistently and constantly in syndication, it seems all the more remarkable that someone would pay $35 (and up) for a boxed set of a complete season. But pay it they do. "The Simpsons - Season 1" is still one of the top selling DVD sets ever, followed by the other seasons. Fox quickly ramped up production on these DVD sets and started to include more and more extras for subsequent releases. "The Simpsons - Season 6" is due to be released on DVD on August 16, 2005. The cancelled series "Family Guy" sold so many DVDs Fox decided to bring it back, creating new shows. So, I get the reason they release TV series on DVD. Some of them are a cash cow.
What I don't get is why people are willing to buy anything released. I can see the reason behind watching something that was, say, cancelled ("Firefly", "The Lone Gunmen"), on cable ("The Sopranos", "Deadwood") or is no longer in syndication. But why would someone buy a DVD box set of "Survivor"? Once you've seen it, why do you need to see it again? You know who won. Or "The Mole"? Or "Too Close For Comfort"? "The Dukes of Hazard"? And many more. There is a place for classic comedies like "I Love Lucy", "The Mary Tyler Moore Show", "The Simpsons" or "Seinfeld". These are classics and consistently make us laugh. "Alf"? Come on. Who needs that?
A recent DVD release, falling into the "Cancelled" category, is Steven Bochco's "Murder One". Premiering on ABC in 1995, Bochco was riding the wave of success created by "NYPD Blue" and "LA Law". He, along with David Milch ("Deadwood"), created an intense, fascinating, richly detailed show about a high powered law firm in Los Angeles as they defend a movie star for murder. Wait, am I talking about "LA Law" or "Murder One"? There is a key difference between the two.
Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) is one of the highest profile attorneys in Los Angeles. Think a Caucasian Johnnie Cochran. The clients who visit his Century City law firm on a regular basis include billionaires, foreign dignitaries, movie stars, entertainment personalities and more. One of his associates, Chris Docknovich (Michael Hayden), whispers in his ear that he heard about a high profile arrest the night before. A young woman was murdered in her Hollywood apartment. Billionaire Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci) was arrested for the crime. Cross is one of Hoffman's clients. Quickly becoming immersed in his client's trial, Hoffman realizes everything is not as it seems and eventually agrees to represent Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) when he is eventually arrested for the same crime.
The key difference between "LA Law" and "Murder One" is the concept. "Murder One" was created as a vehicle to follow one case over the course of an entire season. An interesting concept, but, unfortunately ahead of it's time. Today, "24" (which is also available on DVD), borrows the same sort of idea. But in 1995, it was too much for an audience with MTV-induced attention deficit disorder. Watching the six DVD set of the first season of "Murder One", they have included the "Previously On..." bits which preceded all of the episodes. This isn't out of the norm, but in this case, they are interesting. It quickly became apparent that the viewers were getting lost in the labyrinth story. The show was `relaunched' a few times by the network. As these efforts became more desperate, the "Previously On..." bits became longer and more elaborate, giving new viewers (hopefully), enough information to catch up. It didn't work. Clearly, the only reason the show lasted the two seasons it lasted was because of Bochco's other hits. More on the second season later.
"Murder One" is memorable for many reasons. The show featured some early, and very good, work by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, both of whom have since gone on to appear in many good films. Tucci, in particular, is very memorable as billionaire Richard Cross. His character is very difficult to figure out. Tucci brings many layers to the role, creating a richly detailed character for television. One minute, he is supportive; the next he is working angles behind the scene to make sure he gets what he wants. Clarkson plays Annie Hoffman, Ted's wife. In the initial episodes, she is supportive and a sounding board for her husband. She would frequently appear at the end of the episode, when her husband returns home. Their exchanges were believable. As the Avedon case progresses, she begins to feel left out of Ted's life and the character develops in a way that I didn't entirely believe. She seems a little too "New Age-y" for my liking.
Daniel Benzali is a unique personality. In remembering the show, all I could think of was his gruff demeanor. While watching the show again, I was also surprised by the range of emotion. At times, he is a hard ass, at others, an extremely caring man. To some people, he is nice, supportive, caring. To others, he is hell; a perfectionist, manipulative when it suits him, bossy. The character is very, very complicated and multi-faceted. You simply don't find that level on television today. Barbara Bosson, Bochco's ex-wife, appears as Miriam Grasso, the District Attorney who prosecutes the Avedon case. Hoffman and Grasso have worked on opposite sides of many cases before and they have a relationship. They are not beyond caring for each other, helping each other in their personal lives, exchanging friendly words. But when it comes to the case they are currently working on, they are ready to tear one another apart. Bosson's character is equally complex and richly nuanced. Much of the joy of "Murder One" comes from watching these two characters face off against one another.
The premise of following one case over the course of a television season is unique and interesting. Devoting twenty-three episodes to one story is a lot. Because of this, the case had to be involving, interesting and well-plotted. In "Murder One", the case of the People vs. Neil Avedon was all of these things. I don't recall ever watching a legal drama go into the same depth concerning jury selection, or witness preparation, or any of the many other aspects covered for the trial. Because we follow the trial for so many shows, the trial is presented in more depth than we have ever seen on television before.
In the beginning of the season, before the Avedon trial gets going full speed, someone decided that the remaining members of Hoffman's team needed to be kept busy. Before the many aspects of working on a high profile trial kick in, we had to meet Arnold Spivak (J. C. MacKenzie), Chris Docknovich (Hayden), Justine Appleton (Mary McCormack) and Lisa Gillespie (Grace Phillips). To do this, each of them, one per episode, is assigned to a secondary case. In television drama terms, this is called a `B Story'. Some of these work, some don't. In one case, two neighbors go to court over a yapping dog. In another, the younger brother of a `gangsta rapper' is convicted of murdering a rival gang member. Both are a little insulting and nowhere near on the par of the rest of the show.
As the trial gets going, and we become aware of the level of machinations going on in the background, we realize how well-written, how well-acted, how tightly plotted the show is. We realize how good the show was.
It is my understanding that when the show was picked up for a second season, Benzali began making a lot of demands, convinced he was a star. He was let go. Also abandoned, was the idea of following a single case for an entire season. At the beginning of the second season, Anthony LaPaglia joined the cast as the new owner of the law firm. Of course, Stanley Tucci and Jason Gedrick didn't return. In the second season, the idea was that the show would follow three high profile cases, one at a time, in order to allow people to watch more casually. The first case involved a basketball player convicted of murder. It didn't work and the show didn't last its second season. The handful of loyal fans didn't like the change in the show's format and it was cancelled.
Thankfully, "Murder One - Season One" is now available on DVD and you have the opportunity to watch one of the best television shows ever to grace the small screen.