A BIT OF MID-CAREER ADVICE FOR TAYE DIGGS (RE: MURDER IN THE FIRST)

I have a bit of career advice for Taye Diggs: Bail! Jump! Now! Get out of Murder in the First while you can! The network might not cancel it in time for you to get that next good role.

In case you haven’t seen it, Murder in the First is a new show on the TNT cable network. Co-starring with Diggs are former Bates Motel and Boss co-star Kathleen Robertson, Tom Felton, whose credits include the role of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, and veteran actor and video game voice artist Ian Anthony Dale. The series should be a winner, boasting the production team of Hill Street Blues creator Steven Bachco and newcomer Eric Lodel.

But the show is a mess. The concept, increasingly common in TV series, involves one case that will take the season to solve. Diggs and Robertson play a team of San Francisco police inspectors who are following up on two murders connected with an egomaniac tech executive played by Felton. The main victim is a woman who was the tech magnate’s flight attendant and occasional lover.

The mystery should be compelling and it has the potential to be. Reminiscent of The Killing, the plot focuses our attention on one prime suspect while challenging us to pay attention to other possibilities. But unlike The Killing, social implications are neglected even as they are briefly exposed. (The possible killer of a derelict who sent a threatening email to the tech genius is given a public defender who offers him a plea bargain. The demoralized client accepts the bargain without emotion as the two inspectors accept the prosecutor’s invitation to leave. No time to dwell on the how the criminal justice system deals with people at the bottom.)

More importantly, a show like this should be character driven. As the USA network is fond of pointing out, stupid shows with annoying characters can be very successful if the characters are interesting and unique in their annoyingness. (See Monk and Psych.) And in a really good series with strongly written, well-acted characters, we are drawn into the story – intellectually, emotionally, and cognitively. (See, among others, The Killing, Top of the Lake, True Detective, and The Wire.) In these series there are no extraneous characters, no throwaway performances. The victim is a once- living person whose life is given, either through flashbacks or, even better, through our observation of the effect of her (yes, the victims are generally women) life on those who survive her and on those who search for her killer(s).

And the suspects are persons with complex motives and complex relationships with other characters. They, like the victim and the investigators, touch us with their humanity. They pull our minds and our emotions in different directions regarding their guilt or innocence. In Murder in the First, we have two victims who were not written in a way that evokes our sympathy. They are designated victims, isolated from the rest of the world that matters to us. The prime suspect is the most vivid character in the story. His contradictions (and his eyes) draw us in. He may have a god complex. But does he believe that he can get away with murder?

The two protagonists are uniquely inadequate. If the writers want to separate the characters of English (Diggs) and Mulligan (Robertson) from the run-of-the-mill homicide investigator team, they failed. In the first episode English confronts the impending death from cancer of his wife. In the second, he returns to duty after her funeral. He is stoic in his reaction. But there is little opportunity to see the genuine grief and inevitable anger that he experiences trying to break through his efforts to maintain his focus and stiff upper lip. Diggs is a good enough actor to carry of such a performance, but the writing and pacing of the show don’t give him much opportunity. In a telling scene, his late wife’s sister, who is staying at his home after the funeral, tries to get him to have sex with her as a way of dealing with their grief. But, soul of nobility, he gently resists. More than that, he is not even tempted. He is above emotions. I will not delve further into the racial aspect of the character. But English is consistent with the stereotype of the calm dispassionate black hero, detached from his passions and not at all linked to his while female costar by sexual tension.

But his partner Mulligan is the bundle of fake sexual tension. She, too, is a stereotype: blonde, shapely, cute-verging-on-pretty, divorced with a precocious daughter and a typically late-with-everything-full-of-excuses ex-husband. She goes on dating sites looking for a new love interest, much to her partner’s amused chagrin. She brazenly flirts with a suspect in the interrogation room. She sits seductively close to him, smiles suggestively, calling herself the “water girl” when she offers him a bottle of water from which to obtain his DNA. Anything to trap the suspect.

But there’s more. To get DNA from the target suspect, she puts on a provocative outfit, has dinner with him, seduces him into feeling her up (no, she’s not wearing a wire) and exchanges a long, deep kiss so she can embed his saliva into the gum she just stuck in her mouth. This is not credible. Not unless her character is suffering from some psychosexual disorder that has overwhelmed her judgment. But nothing in the story implies any psychology at all.

Series that feature characters with psychological challenges have been quite successful. These characters are often women, especially in serious dramas, like Carrie Mathison in Homeland, and Sarah Linden in The Killing. Their psychological disorders are real and effect their lives and work – positively and negatively. They suffer. They blunder. They transcend. They fail even as they succeed. There is no way that the writers can illuminate the characters of English and Mulligan in a way that grounds them in a credible reality, even one so contrived as the setting and events of Homeland.

The shiny object that has been inserted for the purpose of distracting us (while at the same time establishing TNT’s edginess cred) is nudity. In two scenes we are shown full-length nude female bodies, seen from behind. In one scene there is the victim, stretched out at the bottom of a staircase. In the other English’s distraught sister-in-law, seeking solace in sex, drops her robe to reveal her nude body from behind. English, always the gentleman, picks up the robe, drapes it over her shoulders, and gives her a consoling hug. This is a new feature, but it contributes nothing to the storyline. It just continues the trend in which the ante has been raised on both network and cable programming. The level of profanity and sexual references that is acceptable on network programming has risen significantly in the last season. And TNT is after all a cable network. (Sooner or later some supporting actress on a TNT series will have the “honor” of displaying the network’s first bare breast.) Unfortunately, nudity isn’t a substitute for good writing.

Finally, there is the insistence of the show’s writers that murder investigations have nothing to do with the US constitution. The idea that tricking suspects out of their DNA is both necessary and legal is a commonplace on propagandistic police series. The writers seem to assume that American viewers, in their disdain for “big government,” will revel in “big government’s” violation of constitutional rights as long as the violation is carried out by attractive characters.

Never mind that suspects can simply be asked to provide DNA samples and, if evidence supports a warrant, required to do so. And, because the detectives insist on the urgency of a DNA profile, overworked and under resourced crime lab staff can provide one day turnover in the matching of DNA from a crime scene and that from a suspect. Of course, other than the Law and Order franchise, crime series don’t show the aftermath of the arrest: the prosecutor going ballistic over the investigators’ mishandling of the case or the judge throwing the case out of court. Lucky for Messrs Bachco et al.

As I pointed out in a previous post, I am not very good at predicting which shows will be cancelled and when. Murder in the First may have a long and successful multi-season run. In which case, I hope it brings Taye Diggs many a big payday. But just in case the critics wake up to the show and give it the reviews that it merits, I hope that Taye Diggs finds better opportunities, equal to his talent.

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