When Raphael Sbarge isn't in Storybrooke, he's saving San Francisco. The veteran actor has a supporting role in TNT's new drama series Murder In The First, playing San Francisco homicide inspector David Molk - the Profaci to Taye Diggs' and Kathleen Robertson's crime-fighting duo. We checked back in with Raphael on Friday to get the dish on his newest gig and what it was like for him to join the stellar Murder cast.
"I think once [people] start watching it, I think they're going to find that they get hooked," he told us. "There are so many wonderful actors in this show, and it's sort of lean-forward television."
What did he think when the opportunity to join a Steven Bochco series with an all-star ensemble came his way? "To be quite honest, I had no expectation," Raphael reflected, "because pilots are always, it's a very complicated equation. You have to set up a lot of different characters, but you have to most primarily set up the main trajectory - which is the two leads - and tell the beginning, middle and end of a story that can carry you [forward and] you have to do it so freaking fast.
"Based upon the fact that there wasn't much on the page when I read the pilot for this, I thought well, it could go any way. When they came back and said yeah, we want to do this, I was absolutely thrilled," he continued. "The funny thing is, the character was written as a sort of large, overweight guy and I'm in actually pretty good shape!"
But that's what makes him such a gem in the role. Just as Raphael defies the physical description of who David was supposed to be, so, too, does he break out of the supporting mold of "the other guy." In most crime procedurals, you'll find the hero, his partner, their boss and then the other guy who fills in the cracks. It's generally a pretty thankless job. But Raphael does an excellent job of building David into someone we feel like we know, and want to know more about. He might not be the guy who ultimately gets the spotlight, but he's the one who feels already like an old friend.
What does he enjoy most about his character? "I love that they've got a guy who's a single dad and he's trying to find his footing post-divorce. There's a lot of folks who work as cops and also fireman where they struggle with their home life. That seems very valid," he told us. "Also, he's a little bit offbeat and a little quirky, [but] he loves what he does. He really cares deeply about his work."
(Pro tip: if you really want to dig into David's character, go back and watch last week's episode.)
Murder In The First is following one case over the course of its entire ten-episode season, and the actors don't know much more about it while they're making it than you do when you're watching it. "We're all really excited about what happens next and where the twists are," Raphael said. "We had sort of a bet as to who we thought did it and what the different options were and which way it'd go and that sort of stuff.
"I've had some people come up to me and say that it reminds me so much of The Killing. It's great to be compared to that show," he continued. "I think we've seen so many of those episodes of television where you know within minute twenty what happens, minute forty what happens, and at the end somebody gets locked up."
Although unlike The Killing, the first season of Murder In The First will have a definite conclusion, and there are already discussions about what might happen if the show returns next summer. "What I know in a very generalized form is this," Raphael explained. "There's a core group of us who are the detectives as well as a few other folks. We are kind of the infrastructure of the SFPD, that would then be moving to another case. What that would then allow is the next sort of batch of extraordinary actors to kind of come in and be at the epicenter of a new story."
As he pointed out to us, that's actually a pretty smart idea, considering that you could then cast the likes of a Tom Felton - who's already deliciously infuriating as prime murder suspect Erich Blunt - or James Cromwell, people who might not be able to commit to a regular TV role but who could come aboard this show, deliver a great performance for a short season, and then go on about their other business. Combine gets like that with an already remarkable core ensemble and one of the best-known producers in television, and you've got a winning formula.
If you've somehow missed the boat thus far, there are many easy ways to catch the first three episodes of Murder In The First before episode four airs tonight. You can watch all the previously aired episodes for free through broadcast reruns on TNT (check your local listings for specific airtime), as well as via TNT On Demand and TNT.com. iTunes and Amazon are also offering the pilot for free download, though they'll charge you to watch the subsequent episodes.
For Raphael, who's guested as less than scrupulous law enforcement officials on a few other shows, the joy of this project comes from getting to play a cop in a series-regular role - and to do it for Steven Bochco, whose crime/legal genre resume speaks for itself with the likes of the classic Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue, TNT's own Raising The Bar, and the sort of predecessor to Murder In The First, Murder One.
"Steven Bochco loves cops. He just loves them," he reflected. "And he seems to really have a sense of how their heart beats and what their passions are and what kind of people they are. There's a real sense of the integrity of these public servants, which I love. They're not all heroes and they've got wrinkles and warts and challenges about them.
"Honestly, if I could work with anyone playing a detective or a cop, I feel like this is sort of the high water mark, working with Steven," he continued. "That's maybe the best part."
The best part for us is getting to watch him in an entirely different role. After all the characters he's taken on over his already impressive career, you wouldn't think you'd find something totally new to Raphael, but we have - and when you give Steven Bochco-level material to an actor of his caliber, and don't pencil him into the prototypical sidekick mold, that's when magic happens. While he might not wind up at center stage, he's this show's unsung hero.
An all-new Murder In The First airs tonight at 10 PM ET/PT on TNT; you can catch up with the first three episodes online or on demand, as mentioned above. For more with Raphael, be sure you're checking out his official website (raphaelsbarge.com) and following him on Twitter (@RaphaelSbarge).