Dick Wolf’s original Law & Order series spawned multiple spin-offs that, rather counterintuitively, proved most successful when they steered away from the flagship procedural drama’s format. The Special Victims Unit has spent 18 seasons delving into the detectives’ backstories as often as the victims’, while Criminal Intent went inside the heads of the perpetrators. Even Law & Order: Trial By Jury futzed with the formula by showing viewers what goes into mounting a criminal defense, as well as the prosecution.
2010’s Law & Order: LA was a return to form, splitting the action up once again between the police station and the courthouse. It even co-starred Alana De La Garza, who played assistant district attorney Connie Rubirosa in the final seasons of the original. But LA failed to resonate nationwide, and was canceled after one season. When Wolf wanted back on the bench, he re-teamed with Rene Balcer for last season’s Chicago Justice, which, despite being part of the Second City-based franchise, looked and sounded like an ersatz L&O revival. There were litigators, investigators, suspects, and victims, but they were caught in limbo between New York and Chicago, so Justice was retired.
These pale imitations have done nothing to dim the nostalgic glow of the original series, which has retained enough good will to elicit excited Twitter reactions about Sam Waterston’s upcoming guest appearance on SVU. Wolf might not have been able to recapture the spirit of the original series with his spin-offs, but he’s still sounding the (modified) clung-clung once more for true-crime anthology series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. Its unwieldy title is likely to cause the same stir among copy editors as American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson. Given the success of that Ryan Murphy anthology series, Wolf and Balcer probably hope the comparison will extend beyond the name. But two episodes in, The Menendez Murders doesn’t look as grounded or thoughtful as that previous crime-of-the-century tale. A promising premiere gives way to a duller second episode that forgets its pulpy nature, becoming the TV equivalent of a patrolman’s beat. There’s enough here to warrant further investigation, though, including a great cast led by Edie Falco, who plays the savvy but compassionate defense attorney Leslie Abramson.
This eight-episode first season reckons with the real-life murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez (Carlos Gómez and Lolita Davidovich, respectively) by their sons, Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper). The Leopold and Loeb of Beverly Hills stunned their affluent neighbors, first by staging the murders to look like mob executions, and later, with the revelation that they’re “good boys,” the kind that might have once dated their daughters, gone bad. In its early goings, The Menendez Murders doesn’t seem equipped or even interested in exploring the class dynamics of the slightly-older-money families making room for a successful immigrant—in an interracial marriage, no less—and his family.
The series quickly shows it’s not as ambitious as People Vs. O.J. Simpson, but where The Menendez Murders does fare well is in its treatment of the crime. Director Lesli Linka Glatter gives us the killers’ view of the murders, but fills the frame with Jose and Kitty’s injured bodies, earning sympathy for the victims while also creating the basis for Erik’s impending breakdown. There might not be much new info about the murders or the brothers’ motives to glean here, especially if you’re among the true-crime buffs NBC’s ostensibly courting, but Wolf and Glatter endeavor to recreate the nation’s shock, and mostly succeed. The hard-nosed cops catch on quicker than the boys’ friends and family, though it’s not for lack of hint dropping by the less than masterful criminals.
Unfortunately, the Law doesn’t quite hold up its end of the bargain—Cliff Chamberlain and Sam Jaeger don’t come close to offering the beats or banter of a Briscoe and Logan, or Benson and Stabler. Their superiors aren’t much more engaging, as it quickly becomes hard to tell one politically minded ADA from the next. Josh Charles, Anthony Edwards, Heather Graham, and Chris Bauer brighten up the dark corners of the series, but it’s Falco who carries the show (even under a wig) and lends nuance to the proceedings. Her decision to defend Lyle and Erik after internally judging them as guilty isn’t a reversal; it’s a pivot. Leslie’s a defense lawyer, after all, and better versed on the various shades of gray than a Pantone book. She’s no Jack McCoy, but that’s because she’s on the other side of the aisle.
A more apt comparison would be to Tovah Feldshuh’s Danielle Melnick, who could spin the facts without losing her moral center. Falco’s screen time is limited in the first two episodes, but she quickly creates the same interiority. The actor provides a solid defense for The Menendez Murders; obviously, the same can’t be said for her character. But you can’t win ’em all.
Reviews by Kyle Fowle will run weekly.