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You could tell Murder One (BBC2) had pretensions to the epic. The first edition of this 26-week mega-serial was described not as Part One, or even Episode One but Chapter One. Steven Bochco (in the heightened vocabulary of the genre, referred to as the programme's "co-creator") has been gearing up for something very big indeed, since he first started as script editor on Columbo and MacMillan and Wife in the Seventies. Through Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue he went, developing in his wake a template for American television drama which has been much copied but seldom bettered. As he progressed, Bochco workshopped up many concepts which seemed luxurious within the commercial demands of telly: big casts, movie-quality production values and a fascination with complex, inter- woven and frequently extended plotlines. Murder One is thus the apogee of his craft: complex, inter-woven and very, very extended.

The tone was set last night by an entire court-room drama being played out before the opening credits rolled: our hero, Theodore Hoffman, notch brief in big, bad LA, plays the system to perfection to ensure the release of his Hollywood bad-boy client, up in front of the beak for strangling a swan. This client, incidentally, was a character so steeped in debauchery you sensed Bochco would not introduce him for nothing and sure enough his name cropped up later in connection with the murder which is the serial's eponymous heart. And, as Hoffman did his bit, all the directorial ticks which characterise Bochco were immediately giving evidence on his behalf: the 360-degree camera spin, the drum-beat score, the speed of editing (which makes British equivalents like Kavanagh QC look steam-age) and what appears to be the entire population of Los Angeles drafted in as extras. These are ticks which have become cliches through over-borrowing by other directors, but in the hands of their inventor they still have the power to sing.

This was in part because the core of Murder One is so fascinating. It is based on that great American institution: the celebrity trial. Put succinctly, by one of Hoffman's associates, the plot runs thus: "You've got your 15-year-old victim, you've got your presence of drugs, rumours of sexual depravity and your gorgeous older sister, an alleged prostitute linked romantically to the rich, powerful and married businessman and philanthropist Richard Cross. That's a lot of sizzle." And from the off you could see Hoffman (ably played by the old Bocho stable stalwart Daniel Banzali) sinking, as the LA Police Department themselves would put it, up to his hips in the arc-lit adrenaline-rush of defending that big name on trial.

The threads were laid in place with a master tailor's skill. In the decadent, depraved world of monied Hollywood celebrity, Hoffman was quickly set up as a moral force. He is, for instance, almost unnecessarily stable in his home life ("Take the puppy upstairs Elizabeth," says his stay- at-home-and-cook-good-things wife to their daughter as big daddy comes home). He is, too, prone to giving lofty, idealistic speeches about the integrity of the law to drunks in bars. But he is also cynically capable: "How many business suits do you own?" he asks the young woman he has chosen to act as his junior on the case. "Buy some more, I don't want to see you in the same suit twice in the same week."

Twenty six weeks though is a long time to sustain one plot. So as Hoffman readies himself to play Johnnie Cochran (OJ's brief), other soapy intrigues were brewing around him. My favourite was the way, for example, his juniors jockeyed for position: "When it comes to experience, Teddy," said one pushy brief, "you know it's my ass that should be on that second seat." Though frankly with Bochco's ass on the first seat, it doesn't much matter who else sits where.