Watching MURDER ONE (ABC, Thursdays, 10-11 p.m.) promises to be like reading one chapter of a first-rate legal thriller every week. This new Steven Bochco production will follow the proceedings of just one case over the course of an entire season, and therefore, to hold our attention, the case has to be a doozy. This one is: the murder in Los Angeles of a 15-year-old girl ''naked, tied up, strangled, drugs all over the place,'' as one lawyer describes it. And don't think we're not shown the crime scene, either.
Big-bucks attorney Ted Hoffman (Daniel Benzali) comes into this case reluctantly, and through a side door: A wealthy client of his, played by Stanley Tucci (Kiss of Death), was having an affair with the girl's sister. At first Tucci's Richard Cross seems like an innocent schmuck a guy who's been cheating on his wife and doesn't need the publicity of being even remotely associated with a killing. But as Murder One's debut episode proceeds, Cross starts looking more and more as if he's up to his neck in this crime, and when he's arrested for first-degree murder, Hoffman signs on to defend him.
Bochco and his writers needed a sensational crime to get our attention, but it's clear even after the first episode that the real subject of Murder One is process: how the murder is investigated, how the police decide to arrest a suspect, how that suspect is prosecuted and defended, and all the various social politics that figure in every one of these stages. Real-life celebrity attorney Howard Weitzman is the series' technical adviser, so we can assume a fair amount of both legal and showbiz authenticity. Bochco says he had the idea for this show long before the O.J. Simpson trial began, but comparisons are inevitable, if for no other reason than sour irony: The slowly unfolding tragedy of the Simpson case has already accustomed many viewers to the deliberate pace of this fictional one.
The cast of Murder One is certainly extraordinary. Benzali was a scene-stealer whenever he strode onto NYPD Blue, playing a Mobbed-up attorney. As an actor, Benzali can project what every good lawyer needs: a sense of utter confidence, the feeling that there's nothing you can say to him that will surprise him or catch him off guard. And Tucci is wonderfully unafraid to play a panicked weasel for all it's worth, while Dylan Baker's pale, thin-lipped LAPD homicide detective is a little masterpiece of WASPy menace.
Jason Gedrick (Class of '96) radiates a fine smarminess as a drug-abusing hot young actor whom even Hoffman finds difficult to justify defending. (''Don't you sometimes make yourself sick?'' asks a judge. Hoffman smiles wryly: ''Sometimes, your honor.'') It will take a few weeks for the personalities in Hoffman's law firm to assert themselves, but so far, Mary McCormack's overweeningly ambitious, frosty blond lawyer looks like a standout, as does the grim, prim secretary played by performance artist John Fleck.