Shortly after Steven Bochco created his Silicon Valley-themed mystery "Murder in the First," he took lead actors Taye Diggs and Kathleen Robertson on an unusual field trip: to San Francisco's famous criminal headquarters at 850 Bryant St., where the TV producer proceeded to sit down with the actors and a retired detective at a nearby diner.
"He just took out his notepad and started asking the detective all sorts of questions. We sat there for hours, Steven just writing in his pad," Robertson said. "Even after all these years he just wanted to roll up his sleeves."
Bochco gets back to business in several ways with "Murder," which premieres its 10-episode run on TNT on June 9.
The San Francisco-set show, which follows two connected murder investigations and prosecutions over a season, marks the TV maestro's return to TNT after his last show, the legal drama "Raising the Bar," ended its short-lived run in 2009. It's also a new stab at an idea that Bochco helped pioneer nearly 20 years ago, only to watch others find more success with it than he did.
In 1995, Bochco's ABC series "Murder One" also followed a complicated investigation over the course of a season. Despite solid reviews it was canceled after just two seasons — yet paved the way for such shows as "The Killing" and "True Detective" years later.
"What's fun about the single story line is you get to develop characters, to really make them well examined," Bochco said. "And this is a much more manageable number than 'Murder One,'" he added, noting that he hadn't figured out how to end that series' first season until two-thirds of the way in. "It's much harder to keep the air in the balloon for 22 episodes."
Indeed, "Murder in the First" tears through developments like a D.A. rattling off charges.
The pilot sets up the partner-cop dynamic of single mom Hildy (Robertson) and veteran Terry (Diggs), who's coping with a terminally ill wife. Two murders soon follow, both of them with surprising connections to a slick Silicon Valley wunderkind named Erich Blunt (an unctuous Tom Felton). Bochco and co-creator Eric Lodal swing the series' action between Silicon Valley swagger and the "Hill Street Blues" creator's trademark station-house patter.
There is something familiar if a little jarring about Bochco's return to the police genre, which he transformed with shows such as "Hill Street" and "NYPD Blue."
Bochco said he sees "Murder" on the same continuum as those and wanted the series to reflect the moment, much as "Hill Street" did during a post-Vietnam period when many were suspicious of authority. "Murder in the First," he said, is interested in the collision of new and old, tech billionaires and working-class cops, gentrifiers and those pulled under by their wake.
"When you look at Mark Zuckerberg and Snapchat and all these twentysomething billionaires, it's really kind of fascinating, a classic tale of the haves and have-nots," said Bochco, whose show shoots in Los Angeles and San Francisco. "You have these young bright people who are in many ways adolescents but also super-privileged, and then you contrast them with middle-class and blue-collar people who look at these youngsters with a degree of bafflement. San Francisco is the center of it, but it's happening everywhere."
Bochco was inspired to create the show after reading a Steve Jobs biography and being taken with the idea of young genius and the perks and pitfalls that come with it.
Lodal, for his part, said he wanted to tell a story that tapped into a moment of technology-fueled uncertainty.
"'How do you find stability in a world where the ground is constantly shifting under you?,' that's the question we're asking," said the creator, who arranged for the actors to visit Bay Area companies such as Twitter and Airbnb before shooting. "It's very much about the world we're living in." (Lodal is part of a group of younger talent Bochco is guiding on the show, which includes his own son Jesse, who directed several episodes.)
At 70, Bochco says he lacks some of the drive of his earlier career when he was supervising as many as two network shows per season and changing the game with long arcs and sprawling ensembles.
"I still love the job. I still love sitting in a room and figuring out stories and mentoring talent. But I don't have the stamina like I once did."
Yet his actions--both on his this series and on his larger TV resume-- suggests he may be overstating the case. "Murder" contnues a heady late-career pace for the creator. And though it may be a little strange for a man who singlehandedly changed primetime to continue working as his spiritual heirs dominate the landscape, Bochco said this gives him little reason for reflection or regret.
"I tend not to spend a lot of time looking in the rearview mirror," he said. "If you say 'Oh, I did 'Hill Street Blues' or 'L.A. Law' and everything I do has to measure up to some preconceived notion of that' it would paralyze you."