If its premiere epitomizes what's ahead, Steven Bochco's intense legal drama "Murder One" will be the best new series of the fall season. Period. Case closed. Jury dismissed with thanks.
It arrives on ABC tonight, as does "Hudson Street," an above-average comedy series starring Tony Danza as a cop. And completing tonight's trio of law-related debuts is "The Pursuit of Happiness," a genial but only so-so NBC comedy about an idealistic attorney, which has the good fortune to follow the popular "Frasier."
"Murder One" will be pursuing Nielsen happiness opposite NBC's hit hospital series "ER" once it settles into its regular Thursday time slot Oct. 12. The opposition on CBS will be "48 Hours," whose agenda is to pursue good stories.
The dark, twisting one that introduces "Murder One" and its central character, Los Angeles criminal defense attorney Teddy Hoffman, will run through the season, making this, ABC says, the first legal series to follow a single case for such an extended period.
Whether this strategy works remains to be seen. However, "Murder One" has the built-in advantage of coinciding with the O.J. Simpson double-homicide trial, whose shish kebab of glamorous, high-wattage criminal defense attorneys has created a voyeuristic hunger for inside dope about their secrets and what transpires in their poshly appointed office suites. One such attorney, Howard Weitzman, is technical adviser to "Murder One," whose fictional dream team is led by the magnetic Hoffman, who comfortably wears the trappings of wealth and influence.
He's played persuasively by Daniel Benzali, whose unconventional appeal derives largely from a shaved head, prominent ears, penetrating eyes and the kind of hoarse half-whisper that you don't forget. Especially striking are close-ups of Benzali that shroud half his fleshy skull in shadows, as if he were concealing something.
We meet this tough and pragmatic, yet honorable courtroom star as he's saving arrogant actor Neil Avedon (Jason Gedrick) from jail for maliciously killing a swan. Avedon will resurface, but the larger, darker shadow looming over "Murder One" is another of Hoffman's clients, Richard Cross (Stanley Tucci), the shady business tycoon whom police are trying to tie to the slaying of his mistress' 15-year-old sister.
"The press will beat it to death for three days and move on," Hoffman assures Cross. Layer by layer, however, the case is stripped back to reveal evidence that appears to implicate Cross and push Hoffman toward a critical crossroads in his client's defense.
As the mystery deepens, some of the hour's best moments pit Hoffman against Det. Arthur Polson (Dylan Baker), a nasty cop who, it appears, will do nothing in "Murder One" to improve the beleaguered LAPD's image.
"There's the door, use it," Hoffman angrily orders the obnoxious detective without raising his voice. Clearly no angel, Hoffman shows his softer side at home with his wife (Patricia Clarkson) and their daughter.
With "Hill Street Blues," "L.A. Law" and "NYPD Blue" already heading his resume, "Murder One" is quintessential Bochco, a well-acted, smartly written, meticulously presented hour that turns the law inside out while telling a good story that makes you feel like you're spying on these people through a peephole. Created by Bochco, Charles H. Eglee and Channing Gibson, it has that irresistible thing that identifies a series as a creative success: You can't wait for it to return.
"Hudson Street" you can wait on.
Nonetheless, this is a fairly pleasing little comedy that offers Danza and Lori Loughlin some nice moments as one of those familiar, oddly matched, argumentative couples en route to a meaningful relationship, but saves its best banter for the squad room.
Danza is New Jersey police Det. Tony Canetti, who shares custody of his 10-year-old son, Mickey (Frankie J. Galasso), with his former wife. Loughlin is newspaper obit writer Melanie Clifford. He's a "press-hating, anti-civil rights, lock-em'-up reactionary," she's a neurotic liberal. In sitcoms, this spells romance.
Although Mickey is one of those over-smart little TV twirps you love to hate, Tony and Melanie are likable characters that wear well, and Tony's cop colleagues are an amusing bunch.
After going out on an arranged date and shooting some pool, Tony and Mickey appear hopelessly apart on everything, and obviously this fleeting trial is over. Except . . . Melanie gets assigned to the police beat, where she'll be working down the hall from Tony, and you know how these things go.
"The Pursuit of Happiness," meanwhile, is no "Frasier," the Emmy-laden hit it follows. What it does have is the affability of Tom Amandes as Chicago attorney Steve Gerard, who learns in a single day that his best friend and office mate, Alex (Brad Garrett), is gay, his wife (Melinda McGraw) has lost her job and his sponging brother (Larry Miller) is moving in with them.
It's not enough.
Although Alex's revelation and sordid law practice add some juice ("People hate lawyers more than they hate gays," he notes), and Meredith Scott Lynn raises some steam as the office's caustic receptionist, the debut of "The Pursuit of Happiness" has too many rounded edges to offer viewers a compelling reason to return for a second sampling.
* "Hudson Street" premieres at 8:30 tonight on ABC (Channels 7, 3 and 42).
* "The Pursuit of Happiness" premieres at 9:30 p.m. on NBC (Channels 4 and 36).
* "Murder One" premieres at 10 p.m. on ABC (Channels 7, 3 and 42); it will air in that spot for three weeks, then will move to its regular time slot of 10 p.m. Thursday on Oct. 12.