From a purely marketing standpoint, it makes sense that Dick Wolf’s Law & Order, with its numerous variations, would dip its toe into more obvious true crime. The last year or so has seen a number of true crime shows find commercial and critical success, from the multiple Emmy wins for FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, to the binge sensation of Netflix’s Making a Murderer. For something like Law & Order, with its built-in audience and familiar, reliable procedural format, it seems like an obvious move that would yield success, and the season premiere certainly does offer up plenty of reasons to keep tuning in, from Falco’s boisterous performance to the way the case acts as a lens for a number of issues within American society.

The questions remains though, does Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders succeed as its own thing, enough to justify its own existence? Or do the show’s aesthetic similarities to American Crime Story and the Law & Order franchise make it just a cheap knockoff lacking a creative vision? Making a judgment call based on the premiere alone is tricky because it really does straddle the line between boasting its own unique draw and copying a lot of what made American Crime Story such a thrilling vision. Other than the lack of cursing, you’d be excused for tuning into The Menendez Murders and assuming it’s Ryan Murphy’s follow-up to his O.J. story, at least until that signature “clunk clunk” scene transition sound hits.

Before digging into how the similarities to other shows detract from the season premiere, it’d be prudent to note that if Law & Order’s style of procedural is something you find compelling and rewarding, you won’t be disappointed with its dip into true crime. The episode opens with the gruesome murder of Kitty and José Menendez. The camera focuses on the barrels of the shotguns before watching as Kitty and José’s bodies fall in slow motion. The entire scene is baked in that cool grey glow that signals a flashback and the coldness of the crime itself, immediately drawing connections to the show’s roots.

Quickly though, it becomes clear that the influence of American Crime Story will loom large this season. When Detective Zoeller (Sam Jaeger, sporting a delightful cop moustache) comes to the scene, there’s an undeniable similarity in direction and thematic exploration. The camera acts as a quizzical, judgmental eye, with Zoeller as our narrator. We’re meant to take in the extravagance of the wealthy family and remove any empathy we might have for them. Zoeller laughs at the Mercedes loaner in the driveway, saying that when his wife takes the car for repairs all she gets is a bus pass. Before long Zoeller is taking the District Attorney to task for positing a theory about mob violence, pointing out how quickly everyone in Beverly Hills puts the blame on outsiders for crime within their seemingly pristine community.

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Class issues are one of the thematic underpinnings of American Crime Story, and one that’s more easily examined in the context of the O.J. Simpson trial and the political climate at the time. That’s not to say that The Menendez Murders can’t go to the same well, but early on it’s hard to shake the idea that Law & Order: True Crime is just copying a blueprint. All of the relevant pieces are there to bolster the easy comparison: the rich victims and suspects, the time period wigs and clothes, the bouncing between different perspectives from lawyers, cops, the family, and the general mood of the public.

With any luck, The Menendez Murders will use that similar theme to bolster its otherwise pretty predictable pattern. If the thematic underpinnings aren’t enough to elevate the show beyond being a decent enough copycat, there are at least the performances to keep things interesting. Falco is immediately captivating as Leslie Abramson, all energy and confidence. When the Menendez Brothers, the cold, calculating Lyle and the more emotional Erik, appear on a TV news broadcast, she makes a bold claim. “No, those boys did it” she says before wandering into the kitchen to make breakfast. You get the immediate sense that Abramson is a no-nonsense person, and that everything she says, including threatening to kick a pushy photographer in the “sack,” is thought out and delivered with purpose.

While Falco is certainly the early standout, the supporting cast is captivating enough early on. Jaeger’s working class cop finds the right balance between being noble and kind of a prick, and the actors playing Lyle and Erik (Miles Gaston Villanueva and Gus Halper, respectively) inject the brothers with equal parts menace, smugness, and fragility. What remains to be seen though is if these performances work well enough to distract from the fact that The Menendez Brothers boasts a rather familiar story and aesthetic, and is potentially juggling too many storylines for an eight-episode season. The Menendez family is filled with drama, from the engagement José doesn’t approve of to the tale of the missing will, Kitty’s depression, and so much more. On top of that, the episode must check in with nearly every single player that will be important this season, and the result is a season premiere that’s at times captivating, but also incredibly overstuffed and hurried. Hopefully the minimal episode order allows the show to settle into a groove sometime soon, rather than rushing through plot points in an attempt to include as much of the real life story as possible.

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Stray observations

  • I love Sam Jaeger’s line reading when his partner says there were no bullet casings at the scene: “That’s…different.” It’s a line that says a lot right off the bat, conveying that he’s cool, collected, and been here before.
  • “Guns, pills, and money. What could possibly go wrong here?”
  • It really doesn’t take long for Lyle to start spending on his dead father’s company credit card, because he’s the most prick-ish of the rich pricks so far. I mean, solid gold money clips? C’mon.
  • Despite all the wealth and influence behind him, Lyle still couldn’t keep himself at Princeton, getting himself suspended for plagiarism.
  • Apparently Eric and an old school pal of his wrote a script about a young rich kid killing his parents and getting a huge inheritance. That seems rather incriminating.
  • Heather Graham saying “Dr. Daddy” is my happy place, though I have no idea what’s happening with that storyline this early in the season. Felt really out of place within the premiere.
  • “There’s only one thing that can generate that kind of anger: family.”

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