TV Review – Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders
The Dick Wolf franchise has the reputation of ripping stories from the headlines and fictionalizing them, changing names and compressing a whole case and trial into one hour. Given the success of FX’s American Crime Story: The People V. O. J. Simpson, the network clearly wanted to replicate that success. Using Wolf’s franchise to do so is good for branding and marketing purposes, but this series doesn’t maintain the structure and pacing of Wolf’s franchise. What this series is trying to do in eight episodes would normally be accomplished in two episodes in Wolf’s other TV shows. It might feel rushed, but that’s the pacing and structure that Wolf has established. This, by contrast, feels extremely slow and needlessly drawn out. With The People V. O. J. Simpson, there were huge issues like racism and sexism that required several episodes to explore. This story doesn’t have all those same issues, and the issues it does have don’t require all this amount of time to nitpick over.
Like with The People V. O. J. Simpson, this show begins the night of the murders when the police arrive. It’s August 21, 1989, and two detectives are assigned to the case. We follow them as they investigate. Two suspects emerge, which are the two boys who found the bodies. We follow them as they try to live their lives and look normal. A lawyer is asked to represent the boys after the arrest. We follow her, as she first hears about the crime on TV. A therapist is pulled or rather inserts himself into the situation. We follow him, as he worms his way through it.
This is actually less people to follow than The People V. O. J. Simpson, but, writer René Balcer makes the assumption that even these, limited number of people can be developed the same way and that the audience would be just as interested. These people are not the same big personalities and media sensations as the persons connected to the Simpson trial. Thus, treating them like such doesn’t work.
Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie and The Sopranos) stars as Leslie Abramson, the curly-haired blonde, defense attorney who represents the boys accused of murder. The first episode is all about her before she gets involved with the case and it could not be less interesting. There’s also a sub-plot about her husband, Tim Rutten, played by Chris Bauer (True Blood), trying to have a baby, and maybe if this were a full-fledged series that was about her, I could see this sub-plot resonating, but, here it felt like a distraction from the case.
Miles Gaston Villenueva (The Young and the Restless) co-stars as Lyle Menendez, one of the two boys arrested for killing his parents. Gus Halper (Goat) also co-stars as Erik Menendez, the other boy arrested. Lyle and Erik are brothers who are very close. They’re of Cuban-descent. Their parents were wealthy. They lived in Beverly Hills. They attended Ivy League schools but were back home for the summer. They’re both very privileged and both very snobbish.
Villenueva and Halper give good performances. Villenueva is the more controlled sociopath who can be more stern and rigid. Halper as Erik is the more unstable neurotic. He worries and is more easily scared or agitated. It’s almost the same dynamic between the two boys in Richard Fleischer’s Compulsion (1959) or Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948). As great and as compelling as the two performances are, those performances get lost in the series shuffling back-and-forth. I almost wish this series had progressed like Compulsion or Rope where we’re strictly in the point-of-view of the two boys and we don’t break from that.
Arguably, we do break away from the boys’ point-of-view in Compulsion as we move into the point-of-view of their defense attorney who must reconcile what they’ve done. That could have been the tactic of this series with Falco taking up the mantle that Orson Welles did nearly 60 years ago, but the first two episodes get so bogged down with the police procedural aspects that we cease to care about them, if we cared about them at all.
Sam Jaeger (Parenthood) who plays Detective Les Zoeller and Cliff Chamberlain (State of Affairs) who plays Detective Tom Linehan, the two police members, are really nothing characters. It’s not like Detective Mark Fuhrman in the O. J. Simpson case. Fuhrman was a character, an unforgettable one who was instrumental in the trial. Zoeller and Linehan are not instrumental, and they’re certainly not memorable in the least.
Josh Charles (The Good Wife and Sports Night) co-stars as Jerome Oziel, a definitely memorable character. Jerome is the therapist who treats Erik. Jerome certainly becomes instrumental in the trial. A good chunk of the second episode is dedicated to him. There’s twists and turns to his story and how he gets pulled into the case that I wish more time were dedicated to him in the first episode, ditching time wasted on the detectives.
However, most of the floor is ceded to Villenueva and Halper as the brothers. Both of whom are very sexy. Given the later accusations of sexual abuse, the show could have possibly played up that aspect of the boys. The bent though leans toward the monetary motivations for the murders, which are inherently not as interesting, but I suppose the makers wanted the sexual abuse to be a surprise for the latter half of the series, considering the marketing leading up to the show’s premiere hinted at those surprising motivations. Yet, that’s a tactic only needed for stretching out material that need not be stretched.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on NBC.