Law & Order Tries to Get Real

With The Menendez Murders, the august franchise can’t quite pull off its own splashy true-crime story.

Edie Falco as Leslie Abramson in Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers.

NBCUniversal Media

Not all true crime is created equal. This is the lesson of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, NBC’s attempt at a splashy anthology series akin to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. (It even has its own great actress, Edie Falco, playing a tough lawyer with a memorable perm.) Superficially, the case of the Menendez brothers—Lyle and Erik, two rich young men who brutally murdered their parents—resembles the O.J. trial: an early 1990s California milieu, bloody crimes committed by handsome men, an inventive defense strategy, and, most relevantly, a media frenzy. Kitty and José Menendez were murdered in 1989, but their sons did not go to trial until 1993. In the interim, Court TV came into existence, and the Menendez case was the network’s first hit, a real-life daytime drama that explains the crime’s lasting imprint in our collective memory better than the crime itself.

The Menendez brothers, simply and awfully, made for great television, when great is defined as that which we are paralytically helpless to turn away from. The Menendez case was lurid and grotesquely theatrical. The trial was delayed for three years while lawyers fought about the admissibility of the brothers’ confession to a psychologist. When the prosecution won the right to play the tapes for the jury, the defense team, led by Leslie Abramson, argued that the brothers had committed the murders in self-defense, after years of sexual abuse. That abuse was testified to in wrenching, tearful detail while the crime itself was discussed in blunt particulars. “When you put the shotgun up against her left cheek and pulled the trigger, did you love your mother?” Abramson asked Erik during the trial. “Yes,” he replied.

The Menendez Murders approaches this material in familiar Law & Order fashion, down to the typeface and the sparing “dun dun.” The first two episodes, all that was made available to critics, focus largely on the “law” side of the ampersand, following the police as their suspicions circle the brothers. In the aftermath of the murders, the psyche of 18-year-old Erik (Gus Halper) begins to fray, and 21-year-old Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) puts nearly $1 million on the family credit card. Foreshadowing the “order” to come, Falco pops up regularly as Leslie Abramson, Erik’s future attorney, in the first episode to demonstrate the accuracy of her gut instinct. She is sure “those boys did it” after watching them for a few seconds on TV and equally convinced that there’s more to the story.

Law & Order and its various iterations have been tweaking true crimes for decades, loosely basing episodes on stories ripped from the headlines. Moving from light fictionalization to ostensible fact, though, presents all sorts of existential problems for Law & Order, a show designed to deliver closure and omniscience. Reality, it turns out, is too bizarre for Law & Order. Faced with the unknowability of real people—confronted, for example, with the fact that the Menendezes kept as pets ferrets that would defecate around their mansion—the show sticks doggedly to its stern style because to do otherwise would be to signal the truth: that it is simply, if satisfyingly, salacious.

The occasional detail gets away from The Menendez Murders’ straitlaced tone.  “People looked up to us in high school,” a friend of Erik’s tells the police while sitting in his parents’ mansion in light-pink shorts. Josh Charles and Heather Graham, as the Menendezes’ slimy shrink Dr. Oziel and his unhinged mistress, drop in from another, pervier, intentionally campier show. But generally speaking, all is solemn procedural, in the classic Law & Order mode, including even the nontraditional flashbacks, which despite being told from specific characters’ points of views are intended to be objective, instead of subjective. Law & Order remains all-knowing, even when that’s impossible.

All of this is very watchable, as with all Law & Order, but not without coating the viewer in a little true slime. What are we getting here? There will never be a shortage of real crimes to examine, but the best examples of the genre add something to the dramatic re-creation. (Otherwise they’re just Solved Mysteries.) Serial, The Jinx, The Keepers, The Staircase, and Making a Murderer are documentaries seeking to redress an injustice, and even those, by turning a murder into a source of entertainment, can give viewers the heebie-jeebies. The People v. O.J. Simpson has a pop sensibility that is a little more fun than may be strictly appropriate for a series featuring a grisly double homicide, but alongside the ESPN documentary on the same subject, it brilliantly recontextualized and reframed the case and its participants as more than just haute-’90s trivia. It, too, was salacious, but it was also something more.

The Menendez Murders, in comparison, simply feels like the most high-profile case that Dick Wolf, the Law & Order impresario, could grab the rights to. If it’s unfair to expect anything to be as relevant as the O.J. Simpson trial—that floor-to-ceiling window into America’s racial divisions, class pretensions, celebrity obsession, and sexist dysfunction—it is fair to note that American Crime Story eschewed the Menendez brothers (and JonBenét Ramsey, Natalee Holloway, and Chandra Levy, all of whom have had or will soon have a true-crime TV treatment) and instead selected, for its future iterations, Hurricane Katrina, Monica Lewinsky, and Gianni Versace. That show’s creators understand what Law & Order does not: Any famous crime can make a grisly splash, but not all murders speak to the present with the same force.