When NBC announced plans for Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, it was easy to look at the project both cynically and optimistically. The cynic would say that this was a transparent attempt to copy the success of FX’s The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, and that slapping the Law & Order name on it, even with the involvement of some key L&O players, couldn’t disguise that. The optimist would say that the L&O team — particularly Menendez writer Rene Balcer, who’s been with the franchise going back to the mothership’s first season — has a long and celebrated track record of turning famous crimes into compelling scripted drama, as well as a history of getting top talent to work in front of the camera (Edie Falco is playing defense attorney Leslie Abramson) and behind it (Mad Men and Homeland director Lesli Linka Glatter). Ryan Murphy didn’t invent true crime stories, after all, so why should he have a TV monopoly on them?
Unfortunately, the first two episodes of The Menendez Murders (it debuts tomorrow night at 10) come much closer to supporting the cynic’s reading than the optimist’s. They play like an old-school Law & Order episode elongated well past the point of interest, without any of the nuance or larger sociological implications that justified Murphy and friends devoting so much time to the O.J. Simpson trial.
The basics, for those too young to know (or too uninterested in Court TV back in the day to care): in 1989, wealthy Beverly Hills couple Jose and Kitty Menendez are murdered by shotgun, and police soon zero in on their young adult sons, Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper) as suspects. Celebrated LA defense attorney Abramson gets involved, as does Erik’s sketchy psychiatrist Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles).
Balcer’s adaptation of it is pretty straightforward, moving step-by-step through the investigation into the brothers by Detectives Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger from Parenthood) and Tom Linehan (Cliff Chamberlain), with Abramson and reporter husband Tim Rutten (Chris Bauer, having a busy fall between this and The Deuce) observing from the outskirts, because you don’t hire Edie Falco if you’re not going to feature her in as many episodes as possible.
But the straightforwardness is a big part of the problem. Though the fictional Law & Order shows were famous for telling stories that were “ripped from the headlines,” they almost always used some big idea from the real case to attract attention, before spinning quickly in some crazy new direction so that viewers wouldn’t be able to predict what might happen next. In fact, Balcer’s very first L&O script, season one’s “The Serpent’s Tooth,” did exactly this with the Menendez case, initially making it look like the victims’ sons did it, before Ben Stone realizes it was the Russian mob.
This is not that, for obvious reasons, and the execution is dull. Neither the brothers nor the detectives have the charisma to carry the pre-trial sections, and there’s simply not enough meat to this part of the story to fill this much time. Whether you know the details of the case or not, the brothers are the only real suspects from very early on, so it doesn’t work as a mystery — one of the reasons we’re supposed to appreciate the brilliance of Leslie Abramson is her recognizing that Lyle and Erik did it the first time she hears about the case on the news — but their initial need to keep it a secret from the world means we don’t get much insight into how they think and feel about what they did. And the twists and turns in the margins, like Dr. Oziel’s affair with Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham), aren’t exciting enough to compensate.
It’s entirely possible that once we get to the trial phase of the story, which will put more of an emphasis on Falco (who, like Sarah Paulson in People v. OJ, gets a character-building assist from a permed wig) and some of the limited series’ other more notable actors (Anthony Edwards as the judge, Elizabeth Reaser as a deputy DA), and can get into Abramson’s defense strategy to explain why the brothers would violently kill their parents, it will pick up dramatic steam. But there’s nothing comparable to the issues of sexism, race relations, and celebrity that made it so easy to tell the story of the Simpson trial in this format, and the flashbacks we get of Jose (Carlos Gómez) and Kitty (Lolita Davidovich) in life(*) are so heavy-handed that the thought of even more in the trial phase doesn’t seem promising.
(*) The flashbacks are in some ways the biggest stylistic deviation from the original Law & Order shows, which allowed witnesses to simply tell the cops or lawyers what happened. Here, everything gets dramatized, not always effectively.
It’s telling that the most excitement I felt throughout either episode was the first time I heard the famous Law & Order “CHUNK CHUNK” sound effect. That mainly made me want to go back and watch “The Serpent’s Tooth” again for the first time in a few decades to see how it holds up.
Wolf said recently that he has no interest in reviving the original series, despite attempts by NBC boss Robert Greenblatt, “because if you can push the boundaries out further, I’d much prefer doing that at this stage.” With over 1000 episodes of the first three series having been produced already (and more SVU still to come), you can’t blame Wolf for wanting to try something new. But the opening passages of The Menedez Murders suggest he should have looked for a different case to launch this latest, very different spinoff.