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Sure, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders shares a few important pieces of DNA with the flagship series that started it all back in 1990. There’s the classic (albeit a slower version of) chu-chung and those intertitle cards.
However, there are also a few key differences, as executive producer Dick Wolf was eager to point out Monday at a PaleyFest preview for the anthology drama.
“One of the big changes is that there is no disclaimer in the front,” he said, pointing to the warning signs the various iterations of Law & Order have always used at the beginning of each episode to emphasize that “the following story is fictional and does not depict any actual person or event.”
After more than 25 years of having to distance himself from the headlines he and the writers were ripping from, Wolf said ditching the card was “very freeing,” but also “more restrictive. … Here, you’re kind of bound by the facts of the case, but it is a fascinating journey.”
Premiering Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET/PT, the eight-episode first installment of Law & Order True Crime follows the very real story of the Menendez brothers, who brutally murdered their father and mother in their Beverly Hills home in 1989 and were eventually sentenced to life in prison without parole after multiple trials. “The most important word in the show is not ‘who’ — we know who did — but ‘why,'” Wolf said. “It’s endlessly fascinating.”
In focusing on the why instead of the whodunit, True Crime also sets itself apart from the other Law & Order spinoffs. “For the first time, it’s a Law & Order that has an agenda,” Wolf said. As he has mentioned before, the prolific producer’s specific agenda is to show the public why the Menendez brothers were sentenced too harshly for murdering their parents. In addition to key evidence being kept out of the trials, an important argument in the Law & Order True Crime series is that the brothers’ father, Jose Menendez, was physically, emotionally and sexually abusive to both siblings, which is what drove them to kill their parents.
“If it had happened now, they would have been sentenced to manslaughter, not murder,” Wolf said. “It should be viewed with a different legal lens because it is unforgivable but it’s understandable, and that’s what’s really interesting.”
Showrunner Rene Balcer, formerly the showrunner on Law & Order, said there were also politics to blame after the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office suffered a series of devastating losses, including the O.J. Simpson murder case and the Rodney King case.
“It kind of became apparent to me that between the first [Menendez] trial and the second trial, something went off the rails on the prosecutor side, so that really interested me,” Balcer said of his extensive research into old police reports and trial transcripts.
The ambitious series also became much more expensive to produce than the traditional Law & Order because of the many scenes shot on location, as well as the period costumes and hairstyles. However, Wolf praised the support of NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt and entertainment president Jennifer Salke. “I knew if it was going to work, it was going to be more expensive than anybody wanted it to be, and every step of the way Bob and Jen just stepped up,” he said. “They never hesitated.”
True Crime also, inadvertently, might come off as slightly more comedic than the original Law & Order. A major part of the anthology focuses on the bizarre and complicated relationship between the Menendez brothers’ therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles), and his mistress Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham), who at one point moves in with him and his family.
“There’s a little bit of humor,” Graham said. “It’s very disturbing, but it was making me laugh.”
Balcer jokingly called them the “French farce” of the series. “When it gets too heavy, we cut to them,” he said.
However, Sam Jaeger, who plays one of the detectives who worked the murder case, also tied True Crime back to the original franchise.
“We love the brand of Law & Order because we sit down and we know what we’re going to get in. We’re going to get into a great, interesting story well told. This is like the best eight-episode episode of Law & Order,” the actor said. “It’s like you have all these highs and lows but there’s also … the truth is stranger than fiction and there’s things in this story that Rene and Dick put in there that if they put it in their regular show, you wouldn’t believe it. And I think that’s what’s so fascinating about this.”
Added Jaeger, “Every day I go into work, I find new facets of the story that I think, ‘Oh my God, I now have to reanalyze my verdict about whether the punishment fit the crime.'”
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