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'Murder' Goes Out With a Bang


ABC's lame-duck "Murder One" is getting a miniseries-like burial that leaves erect the eternal mystery (and you thought TV was totally see-through) of why some series catch on sufficiently to dangle by the threads of their coat sleeves indefinitely, while others fall hard with a big splat.

But you can speculate. A brutal Thursday night time slot surely sapped "Murder One," which is now a cadaver cooling on a slab, having just been hurled from prime time by ABC after a second season of low Nielsen ratings despite a face-lifting and Anthony LaPaglia supplanting another good actor, Daniel Benzali, as lead attorney.

Its postponed final six episodes are now clumped as a three-part miniseries that starts Sunday. You don't need a microscope to spot some seams.

Yet even while getting cranked into the earth, "Murder One" radiates more heart-thumping life, vitality and brain activity than row after row of prime-time's surviving cabbages, ending with a big bang that finds ace attorney Jimmy Wyler (LaPaglia) defending a vigilante-style serial killer with his usual cocky swagger.

Although crime and cop shops have endured as a staple of television since its inception, never before have so many been as good. Despite flopping commercially, "Murder One," Steven Bochco's other ABC series, "NYPD Blue," and NBC's "Law & Order" and "Homicide: Life on the Street" have made the '90s a golden era of TV crime dramas.

The golden era when you also include the brilliant best of the British "Prime Suspect" mysteries on PBS and the distinctive "Cracker" series aired by the A&E network (an ABC version of which is on the fall schedule). And when you add Morse, Dalgliesh and some of the other dour Scotland Yarders who rake their human baggage across PBS and A&E, the A-list glows like an everlasting light.

ABC's long-dead "Naked City" may have been the nascent seed, but Bochco's "Hill Street Blues," on NBC through much of the '80s, was the modern progenitor for today's creme de la crime shows originating in the United States, freeing cop work from TV's glamorizing airbrush and texturizing the legal beat with social content and the arsenic of downtown politics.

The "Murder One" finale hammers in its own modernist signposts. No, the judge snaps to Wyler's dismay, he will not allow TV cameras in his courtroom. Moreover, the jury deciding the fate of Clifford Banks (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a self-anointed executioner of 17 violent criminals whose light sentences ticked him off, gets sequestered to avoid being poisoned by publicity.

And in a streak of dark humor absurd enough to be real, Wyler is taking meetings all over town with panting studio honchos just dying to film the story of Clifford, who from his jail cell demands script approval, fearing portrayal as "some slobbering idiot who gets his kicks from murder." One ups the ante if Clifford is convicted and executed. Another cozies up to Wyler with slicked-back sincerity: "I want to say just one word to you--packaging!"

The two words that count most regarding the movie turn out to be Gary Blondo (John Pleshette). He's the Hollywood hustler who acquires the rights, but in doing so diverts "Murder One" to a sideshow of soaring-over-the-top buffoonery unworthy of the main story. No clowns needed.

Moreover, a large chunk of the final night is unfocused and directionless, wandering into a bog of a second murder case that features two gay men whose mincing manner is tailored to cheap, easy laughs.

Before that happens, though, a stunning revelation has a huge impact on the trial, pitting public safety against legal principle. It's a compelling issue that "Murder One" pauses long enough to examine thoughtfully, following several arresting hours of zooming straightaways and hairpin curves.

They include Clifford marrying a pen pal and, in quite a sight, testifying in shackles at a parole hearing for the man convicted of murdering his mentally disabled little brother. Meanwhile, Wyler resumes his not-so-secret office romance with his conveniently luscious top associate, Justine (Mary McCormack), and entertaining duels with likable acting Dist. Atty. Miriam Grasso (Barbara Bosson), for whom he once worked as an assistant D.A. Though wary foes, they're still friendly. "Toodles," Grasso says breezily when leaving her former colleague at one point.

LaPaglia is strong and appealingly edgy as always, ever credible as someone who would twist the law into a pretzel to win. And Bosson is especially persuasive as his shrewd, formidable rival. But it's Vince who is the seething, menacing center of the story, ticking like "60 Minutes" as mad Clifford, smiling deceptively while nervously wobbling his eyeballs that resemble loose BBs, impossible not to fear even when caged.

His frightening presence adds memorably to this final portrait of "Murder One," which deserves better than it's getting, even though it's not up to the mettle of "NYPD Blue." Yet television being television, what else is there to say?


* "Murder One" airs 9-11 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Thursday on ABC. The network has rated it TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

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