10:30am PT by Kate Stanhope
'Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders' Attempts to Shine a New Light on an Old Case
When Rene Balcer first wrote about the Menendez murders for a 1991 episode of Law & Order, the story had a very different outcome.
"Everybody said 'Oh, they killed their parents for greed.' I said, 'Do kids really kill their parents for money? They already had money.' So we wrote that the Russian mob did it because it was New York and the Russian mob was ascendant," Balcer tells The Hollywood Reporter.
"Now we know the Russian mob doesn’t kill dysfunctional parents. They put them in the White House."
All joking aside, Balcer is reopening the case as the showrunner of NBC's forthcoming anthology drama Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. The eight-episode first season, premiering Tuesday, takes a closer look at the crime, the players involved and the media frenzy that eventually surrounded brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez when they were tried and convicted of murdering their parents with shotguns in their Beverly Hills home on Aug. 20, 1989.
If the premise sounds similar to FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson, that's because it is. It was the success of Ryan Murphy's nine-time Emmy-winning series that inspired NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke to call up Law & Order creator Dick Wolf and ask him about "doing NBC's O.J.," according to Wolf Films president and series exec producer Peter Jankowski.
Although Wolf had built his career on doing almost the exact opposite, following a case from crime to sentencing in a span of just 42 minutes, he and his team jumped at the chance to do the series, and specifically to do it as a new extension of the Law & Order brand. As Jankowski says, "What better brand to put it under Law & Order?"
Despite having already ripped from the Menendez headlines for the mothership series, it didn't take long for Wolf to pick the Menendez murders as the focal point for season one. "There were two big trials in the '90s: One was O.J. and the other one was Menendez," Balcer says.
Like Simpson's murder trial, the Menendez proceedings aired live daily on a then-budding cable channel Court TV. However, "there's a lot more than meets the eye in the story," Jankowski says. "There was a big political battle behind the scenes, the press got very involved so a lot of what you heard and a lot of what you knew was manipulated. What's gratifying about this is it's getting into the nitty-gritty of it and understanding what really happened."
Similar to how the People v. O.J. Simpson tackled the Black Lives Matter movement as it was happening, Balcer believes the current climate has made the Menendez case all the more relevant. "Donald Trump was kind of a role model for Erik and Lyle. In fact, Erik is on tape saying to someone in 1989 that he wants to go into commercial development because that's how Trump did it," he says. "We’re kind of still in this age of entitlement and privilege and look who's in the White House, so those still kinds of characters still exist, they still dominate and they're still an object of public fascination."
(It remains to be seen if a Trump reference Balcer included in the project ends up on the cutting room floor.)
However, the Menendez case also presented some challenges, particularly in terms of storytelling. "This took place over the course of five years," Jankowski says. "How do you tell that story? Because you're taking pieces and events over those years, how do you put them altogether and be honest about it but also give the narrative drive necessary to keep this going for eight episodes. It was very tricky."
Both Wolf and Jankowski knew who their first choice was for the task: former Law & Order showrunner Balcer. "Rene is the world's best storyteller and he also is the world's best researcher," Jankowski says. "He just immersed himself in this thing and he sees things that nobody else does when it comes to storytelling and how things pay off."
The gig brought Balcer back to the Law & Order franchise five years after the end of the Los Angeles and Criminal Intent spinoffs in 2011. True Crime also allowed him to flex his more serialized muscles he had honed on the Parisian series Jo and the Canadian Artic mystery drama The Council. The series was also "a chance to revisit that story and get it right," Balcer says.
That meant exhaustive research, including reading multiple books from the case; regular chats with journalist and now series consultant Robert Rand, who covered the case extensively for the Miami Herald, People, and Playboy; the police reports and interviews from the investigation; the transcripts of the trial and the rulings of Judge Joe Weisberg. "How outrageous some of his decisions were, his gratuitous comments during the trial, you knew something was up here," Balcer explains.
He also reached out to their brothers' defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who made it clear she had no interest in being in involved in the project, and the Menendez brothers. "If we had specific questions we wanted to ask them about this or that detail but I didn’t reach out to them to talk to them because they're different people than they were 25 years ago," he says. "So in the writing of it, I didn't want their voice now to be in my head, I wanted their voice then to be in my head."
As Balcer dived deep into the case, he realized the hero of the story wasn't the Menendez brothers but Abramson.
"She's a very complex, interesting, deep person. Also, she had things happening in her own private life — adopting a child, reconciling dealing with a fractured relationship with her parents — so her personal life kind of had echoes with the case that we're dealing with," Balcer says. "She was our eyes into the case. It became obvious very quickly that she's the one that would be the lead, she's the one with the biggest hill to climb."
However, the extensive research involved also proved challenging at the beginning. While the series was originally eyed for a spring 2017 premiere, it was eventually moved back to fall 2017. "It gave us more time to put thought into it and get the right people," Jankowski says.
That started with the casting of Abramson. Once Balcer assembled a 32-page outline and bible for the eight-episode series, the team reached out to an actress they had worked with several times before on Law & Order: four-time Emmy winner Edie Falco.
"The more I got into it, the more I inadvertently attached my heart to it. I thought, 'Jesus, there's a lot to unload here and I somehow really care about it,'" Falco says. "I'm a mother, and it's about boys growing up and what can happen to people."
Adds Balcer: "She was born to play this role."
The producers also sought out a name executive producer/director who could bring a "cinematic, cable feel" to the series. Enter Homeland executive producer and director Lesli Linka Glatter, also known for her work on acclaimed series like Mad Men and Ray Donovan.
"What's really gratifying about this production is we have a lot of women working on it, and I think the jury was divided women and men. Men wanted conviction and the women wanted acquittal," Jankowski says. "The sexes viewed this case differently back in the day, so I think a female touch is a good thing here."
Glatter's directorial work also helped to "expand the brand" of Law & Order, according to Jankowski. "There is an attempt to do something different without losing the base viewer of Law & Order. We're trying a few new things: how we use music, how we use establishing shots and cards — all the things you're used to in Law & Order. But it's still a Law & Order."
Thanks in no small part to the cache of Falco and Glatter, the production eventually assembled an impressive cast that includes Heather Graham, Josh Charles, Julianne Nicholson, Anthony Edwards and Elizabeth Reaser. However, casting Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper as the Menendez brothers proved to be an "intense process," in the words of Jankowski. "You needed to have empathy for them. Not sympathy necessarily, but empathy, and that requires an actor who can open up," he explains.
That's because so much of the eight episodes hinge on the Menendez brothers' claim that they murdered their parents because they suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their demanding father. While they made these claims at the time of the trials, Balcer says that their side of the story fell on deaf ears.
"It was covered from a point of view because what sold was rich brats killed their parents," he says. "We were at the tail end of the Reagan era, the go-go-go '80s, and this seemed to fit a narrative of ungrateful spoiled children killing their hardworking, immigrant, success-story parents."
Balcer also says the brothers' allegations against their father were largely ignored because at the time, the sexual molestation of boys was a taboo subject.
"Men were very reluctant to talk about it, even victims were very reluctant to talk about it," he says. "That attitude has evolved over the last 20-25 years so certainly if these crimes were to happen now with the same background, I think the public would have been more understanding and accepting of the impact of sexual abuse, especially on sons by their father. We highlight that evolution."
Those claims of abuse are included in the series through extensive flashbacks of the brothers' relationship with their parents — a notable difference from The People v. O.J. Simpson. "You couldn’t just pay it lip service," Balcer says. "It was essential to understanding the crime."
Because of how those claims of sexual abuse were handled (or weren't) at the time of the trial, Wolf has been vocal while promoting the anthology that he thinks the brothers should have been found guilty of manslaughter and not murder in the first degree and should not still be in jail for the crimes. (Both brothers are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.)
"That's legal and I can agree with that," Jankowski says. "Morally, I'm still making up my mind and I think that if this miniseries works the way I think it will, I'm hoping that viewers are going to be watching that and trying to answer that moral question as well."
Adds Balcer: "I think by presenting a much fuller picture of what happened in that family, what happened between the two trials, I think people may re-evaluate their judgment of the Menendez brothers and whether what they got was justice."
But will changing viewers' minds about the brothers lead to a different outcome for the real-life brothers? Balcer is realistic about that possibility, noting that the brothers have already completed the appeals process.
"Something extraordinary would have to happen for that to change," he says, "but never say never."
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on NBC.