In the late 1980s, two brothers who looked like preppy villains from a John Hughes movie were accused of murdering their parents in cold blood in their Beverly Hills home with shotguns. The brothers, Lyle and Erik, had grown up wanting for nothing. Rich, talented, and good-looking, they were painted by the media at first as spoiled brats eager to get their hands on a $14 million inheritance. But as their trial went on, allegations of sexual abuse and other trauma created nationwide confusion to the truth of their motivations. It wasn’t the forever-crying younger brother Erik, the one who wanted to be a tennis pro, who won the jury over. It was the stoic brother Lyle, as he heartbreakingly recounted their father’s abuses on the stand, who became the star of the trial.
Historical spoiler alert: It wasn’t enough. The brothers were sentenced to life in prison, and the first season of a new anthology series, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, seeks to tell their story and that of their firebrand attorney Leslie Abramson, played with blustering intensity by Edie Falco. Like FX’s The People vs O.J. Simpson, we’re getting a well-trod story (though this one is a little less saturated into the public conscious), and a narrative that specifically focuses on a secondary point of view from a strong-willed attorney. Abramson is more of a tough broad than Marcia Clark (at least as portrayed), with Falco giving her a steel backbone and a no-nonsense attitude, yet Abramson is also somewhat bizarrely maternal with her defendants.
Setting this story in the Law & Order family is a tricky one, though. One of the keystones to the franchise’s success in general (or the failure of the original series’ seasons people tend to skip in reruns) is down to the pairings of detectives and lawyers. In Law & Order True Crime the lawyers and detectives are all new to us, and don’t leave much of an impression (aside from Falco). So while the format feels familiar (with that recognizable ba-bom! time card heraldry), it also hamstrings the story. In the original series, those timestamps are checkpoints to remind us of where we are within the swirling investigation or subsequent trial, which becomes a closed case by the end of the hour. The eight-part True Crime, though, is like one long episode where timing and locations don’t hugely matter. When it comes to the investigation, we already know the details of the crime and who committed the murder, leaving this telling lacking in sufficient tension.
Though this first installment of True Crime packs in a lot of talented actors, many of them don’t have enough to do as of the first two episodes. The script almost feels like a Law & Order spoof at times, wasting Josh Charles, Heather Graham, and Chris Bauer with shallowly-constructed characters and forgettable dialogue. The bright spots, though, are Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper who play Lyle and Erik respectively. Halper in particular nails Erik’s emotional fragility, while Villanueva gives Lyle an unrepentant swagger. There is still something that pulls you in, just like the original trial, regarding what went so wrong for these privileged young men to do something so horrific.
The last year has seen a resurrection of these 90s crime stories in both narrative and documentary formats, from the O.J. Simpson trial to the tragic death of JonBenet Ramsey to the Unabomber and the Menendez brothers (including a Lifetime movie). Those that succeed do so because they offer up something new stylistically, or they go beyond procedure to investigate character and motivations in dept. Law & Order isn’t equipped to do this. The People vs O.J. was a character study and a savvy look at the circus of a Hollywood trial, and Discovery’s Manhunt: Unabomber was an engrossing pursuit that relied on a prolonged puzzle and cat and mouse game between Ted Kaczynski and the FBI. Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, though teasing the potential to look at the psychological scars of the brothers, is so far a boilerplate procedural with an ending (and a way to get there) that we’ve seen before in real time.
What Law & Order True Crime seems to show most of all, though, are the limitations of this franchise in handling a multi-episode story. As much as I adore the original series and some of its spinoffs, here the format feels as dated as the wire-rim glasses and boxy ties. It only offers up a paint-by-numbers approach to rehashing of the touchstones of a well-known case rather than delving deeper into the lifestyle of the brothers and those around them, something beyond the character cameos of a typical Law & Order episode.True Crime is currently drafting off of the Law & Order brand, but it’s clear now that will only take it so far.
Rating: ★★ Fair — Only for the dedicated
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres Tuesday, September 26th on NBC.