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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

In its second episode, The Menendez Murders still doesn't know what it wants to be

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Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders is wasting no time at all hurtling through its plot points. The cold open for “Episode 1" all but signaled the series’ rushed pace, starting with the murder and then backtracking to fill in all the details. It’s the typical structure of every Law & Order series, using the crime in question as the jumping off point for an analysis of the victim’s life, and how that may have contributed to their death. That structure creates mystery and anticipation, where the viewer is awaiting each new detail in order to better understand whatever crime took place.

That structure is integral to the relative success of every other iteration of Law & Order, but “Episode 2" suggests that it might not be working for The Menendez Murders. What I mean is that Law & Order thrives on being strictly episodic; the appeal is watching a single case unfold in the span of 42 minutes. There’s no episodes-long investment in character arcs, there’s just one case each and every week. It might not be the most creatively fruitful way to do TV, but it’s familiar, reliable, and allows for coherent A-to-B-to-C storytelling.


But I’m not convinced that such storytelling works across eight episodes, or within the more pointed true crime genre. What The Menendez Murders is really struggling to do is balance the show’s procedural needs with that of its emotional ones; the smaller details that give us a better understanding of the psychological makeup of not only Lyle and Erik Menendez, but also Leslie Abramson, consistently get lost in the mix.

In an ideal TV world, digging into the complex psychology of the Menendez brothers would provide a necessary depth to the crime, getting underneath the sensational headlines and finding something more human. Watching a procedural isn’t just about seeing justice doled out; it’s also about the banality of evil, challenging our ideas that brutal violence is somehow disconnected from human nature. The Menendez Murders is struggling to find that more challenging undercurrent, which is integral to the true crime genre, only offering up mildly revealing tidbits before jumping forward in time and losing the thematic thread.

One of the biggest issues with the show, embodied clearly in “Episode 2,” is the need to cover so much material. The Menendez Murders can’t seem to craft any specific throughline, and that leaves the series, so far, feeling scattered and ill-defined. For instance, “Episode 2" covers nearly six months of activity in its 42-minute runtime, and while nobody wants to watch a show that lingers on every last detail, the hurried nature of the plot here acts as a dramatic deterrent. When the show is barreling through plot points, it’s difficult to latch on to any emotional undercurrent. “Episode 2" is the show flailing, and only finding momentum in its final moments.

Ideally, the final moments of this episode would signal a shift in the show’s focus. With Lyle and Erik arrested, and Leslie giving a fiery press conference about the district attorney’s recklessness when it comes to doctor-patient confidentiality, there’s hope that The Menendez Murders is perhaps turning a corner, that the trial itself will allow for a little more nuance and detailed analysis of what makes this particular case unique or compelling. If The Menendez Murders can sidestep the clunky plotting that’s defined the show so far, then perhaps it can offer up something interesting in the back half of the season. After all, giving Falco much more to do is never a bad thing.


But that’s the optimistic take, and truthfully, “Episode 2" doesn’t give me much reason to be optimistic that The Menendez Murders can turn a corner and start fleshing out what, so far, feels like a rather empty, floundering bit of true crime. The scattered nature of the series premiere could be excused simply by the fact that it was a season premiere. “Episode 2,” however, retains that narrative confusion, tying in stories about Lyle’s best friend in New York, Erik’s screenwriting buddy wearing a wire, Lyle’s restaurant partner Glenn, Ira Reiner’s political ambitions, Leslie going through the adoption process, and Jerry Oziel dealing with his chaotic home life and clingy mistress.

That’s a lot to cover in a single episode, and that leaves “Episode 2" feeling like an overstuffed mess. Just as one seemingly important bit of information pops up, the show shifts its focus and adds something else to the story. Nothing ever sinks in, or is given the time to be explored a little more thoroughly. Instead, The Menendez Murders is barreling ahead with reckless narrative abandon, and it’s robbing the show of any potential drama and emotional stakes.


Stray observations

  • So it turns out that Lyle wears a wig, which would explain a lot.
  • The flashback where José Menendez calls his young son a “faggot” over and over again is the kind of exploitative scene that doesn’t deliver anything other than shock value, dialing the monstrousness up to 11 just for the sake of it.
  • Lyle on the intimations that his father’s death is the product of ties to organized crime: “I won’t believe it until I see something.” Zoeller: “Well that makes two of us.”
  • Last week I thought Heather Graham doing a “Dr. Daddy” thing was kind of fun, but now I’m just sad that she’s playing a role that’s so tonally incompatible with the rest of this show.
  • Lyle and Erik get jail cells right beside one another? That doesn’t seem like a great idea.
  • If there’s a lone bit of light at the end of the tunnel here, it’s that The Menendez Murders could significantly shift its focus to Leslie in future episodes. She’s a fascinating character, and the show could use more of her.