'Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders': TV Review

The Menendez brothers are no O.J. Simpson.
9/26/2017

The story of Erik and Lyle Menendez has gripping elements, but the first two hours of Dick Wolf's NBC miniseries are full of filler and wigs.

On Aug. 20, 1989, Lyle and Erik Menendez murdered their parents in the den of their comfortable Beverly Hills home.

Advertisements for NBC's Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, which premieres Tuesday, boast that it was "the crime that shocked America."

Unlike NBC, I'm not qualified to speak for "America," only for myself, but I remember being only marginally shocked by the Menendez murders. Maybe I just never bought into the idea that wealth was insulation against horrible violence and therefore the "If this could happen to this rich family, it could happen to anybody" narrative never elevated the case for me, just as I never understood the special attention given to the JonBenet Ramsey case. It's not that these aren't tragedies, but the idea of prioritizing tragedies because they involve opulence or charismatic victims or perpetrators isn't a personal fixation. The O.J. Simpson murder trial was an exception because of its unique intersection of celebrity, race, economics, pioneering crime tech and its place within the ongoing saga of the LAPD's relationship with its community. The O.J. Simpson case was a unicorn, a horrible unicorn that exposed schisms in the fabric of American culture.

The Menendez murders, no matter how captivated you were by the crime and the subsequent trials, just didn't do that. For me. But because 2016 saw the release of two successful miniseries related to O.J. Simpson, we get The Menendez Murders, and because Dick Wolf produced The Menendez Murders and NBC wants to get eyeballs on it, the Law & Order brand name has been attached — even though this is the first time "Law & Order" has been applied to a miniseries or to a real crime, and I'm afraid it's not the most natural fit.

Mostly, either the Menendez story was ill-suited for an eight-hour miniseries or the Law & Order approach was ill-suited to telling the story, because although there's absolutely an aspect to the case that is notable and distinctive, through the two hours sent to critics, The Menendez Murders is mainly a lot of wigs and rich kids behaving badly.

In Law & Order terms, the first two hours of The Menendez Murders are just the "law." The crime is committed in the opening minutes, but pilot director Lesli Linka Glatter only shows it to us in evasive reenactment. From there, it's two hours of Erik (Gus Halper) and Lyle (Mile Gaston Villanueva) being spoiled, rich and increasingly paranoid. It doesn't help that all of their deepest, darkest secrets are in the hands of Erik's shrink Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles, plus a bad wig) and Dr. Oziel has been ethically compromised by his deeply, deeply troubled patient/mistress Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham, plus a somewhat fetching wig). Even though we already knew they did it, the opening installments focus on Detective Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger, plus a mustache), who previously proved his willingness to take down the upper crust with his work in the Billionaire Boys Club case.

Because the opening episodes don't get much further than arrests, there's no reason for Edie Falco's defense attorney Leslie Abramson to be there at all, and as series creator Rene Balcer writes her into the narrative, she's just a frustratingly psychic device. She's introduced in the middle of a case in which she's getting an abuse victim out of a murder rap and then she pops up watching initial media coverage and offering wise asides to anybody who's around to listen. Abramson is so immediately sure that they did it and immediately sure that there were extenuating circumstances that it's no wonder somebody finally throws their hands in the air and asks her to represent one or both of the brothers.

I know Wolf and Balcer's fascination with the Menendez case relates to those extenuating circumstances — historical spoiler alert — and if you had to point to an aspect of the case that's genuinely notable and provocative, it would definitely be the allegations of abuse and sexual abuse. Since we barely get to the tip of the abuse iceberg, so far the show feels like the first act of a Law & Order episode wildly elongated over two hours. Did you know that Erik and Lyle were profligate with their inherited money and really, really awful at not looking guilty of murder? The opening episodes go to such extremes to show their bumbling, cash-blowing nefariousness that I found it impossible to respect Detective Zoeller. The rhythms of a Law & Order force the sensation that Ice-T would have had these guys behind bars in 10 minutes.

I'm truly curious if the surplus of Menendez sliminess in the early installments will make it hard to pivot to sympathizing with them later, and I wonder if that was a challenge that the producers set for themselves. It's a high bar to set, and I can't say how fast I'll be able to pivot on Lyle and Erik after they spent two episodes being introduced as the kind of guys who would have caused Brandon Walsh ethical quandaries on early episodes of Beverly Hills, 90210. (Matthew Perry's Roger Azarian was pretty much Lylerik Menendez.) Relative newcomers Halper and Villanueva are good, but the writing pushes them into initially playing the Lifetime movie versions of the brothers. Also giving in to the sleaze are Charles and Graham. They're having fun and they're fun to watch, but it's pretty clear camp.

You know how it was possible to enjoy John Travolta's performance in The People v. O.J. Simpson if you just accepted that he was in a completely different show from everybody else? A lot of the performances in The Menendez Murders are from that Travolta show, which doesn't align in any way with the show's brand-typical verite style.

It's too soon to say for sure if Falco is in a more grounded version of the show and if her increased prominence will mark a dramatic shift for the series. I think Falco is too good to be acting in the Travolta version, but her wig definitely may have lower standards. It's only in the last 20 minutes of the second episode, though, that she becomes an actor and a character beyond the springy ringlets. [Full acknowledgement: This is very much what Leslie Abramson's real hair looked like. Do I only think it looks like a wig because I know what Falco's hair looks like? Maybe.]

I have a lot of hope for the last six episodes of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. It promises more Falco, the introduction of the great Julianne Nicholson as one of Abramson's partners and more of the Menendez backstory that fascinates Balcer.

I can't review what I haven't seen, and mostly what the first two episodes of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders prove is that this didn't need to be an eight-hour miniseries.

Cast: Edie Falco, Heather Graham, Miles Gaston Villanueva, Gus Halper, Carlos Gomez, Lolita Davidovich, Josh Charles, Julianne Nicholson, Anthony Edwards, Elizabeth Reaser, Chris Bauer, Sam Jaeger, Constance Marie
Creator: Rene Balcer
Premieres: Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)

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