I have a confession to make: I am a true crime addict! If I’m not planted in front of my TV watching my latest blu-ray purchase or my favorite show of the moment, I’m probably stuck on the Investigation Discovery channel, a network that features various programming about real life crimes told with those oh so dramatic reenactments. I’m not sure where this addiction stems from but it’s essential must-see TV for me and I tend to watch late at night which results in the occasional sleepless night. Why did I watch a true story about a predator hiding in the basement of a house unnoticed for months? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and a lack of sleep.
Certain true crime stories go beyond the locations they took place in and reach a level of public attention that gets the whole nation talking. One such story is that of Erik and Lyle Menendez, a pair of brothers who viciously murdered their parents, Jose and Mary (“Kitty”) Menendez, in 1989 at their posh Beverly Hills home. The crime gained national attention because it involved a very rich family and it seemed like an open and shut case of greedy kids until their defense attorney, Leslie Abramson, came up with a defense that could play on the sympathy of the jurors and the nation alike, who was watching their trial as it was one of the first to be televised moment to moment (Yep, this was even before the equally infamous O.J. Simpson trial). During the trial, the brothers claimed that the murders stemmed from years of sexual and psychological abuse that they had suffered at the hands of their parents and the brothers were so convincing in their claims that many, even today, believe that the abuse took place. Abramson was able to turn them from greedy sociopaths to a band of brothers who finally broke due to years of abuse and thought the only way out was to murder both of their parents. The claims seemed to work initially because the jury was hopelessly deadlocked during their trials, although their subsequent retrials didn’t allow the abuse claims to be told in court and both brothers ended up being convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Although we know how the story ends, the road to that destination has enthralled people for years. There have been countless documentaries about the case and it still seems to intrigue the general public. The recent wave of true crime addicts has also made its way into the mainstream. Ryan Murphy’s anthology series, American Crime Story, premiered to great ratings and garnered much critical acclaim for its first season as it told the infamous story of The People vs. O.J. Simpson., another high-profile trial that is fully ingrained in the pop culture stratosphere. The FX Network series was so popular that multiple seasons are already in the works that will tell other true crime stories (Up next is the murder of Gianni Versace).
It’s no surprise that with the success of that show, that other networks would jump on the bandwagon and surprisingly the next network to do so is not a cable or streaming service, but network TV’s own NBC. In order to launch their own anthology series, they’re using their familiar and popular Law & Order brand and launching Law & Order True Crime. Last night they premiered episode 1 of their first installment: The Menendez Murders. NBC is hoping that the true crime obsession will lure in viewers and judging from episode 1, I have to say they have a potential obsession-worthy show on their hands, even if it’s slightly held back by its network TV restrictions.
Told in a brief (especially by broadcast standards) eight episodes, The Menendez Murders opens with the titular event. Jose (Carlos Gomez) and Kitty Menendez (Lolita Davidovich) are gunned down in the living room of their palatial mansion, blood from their shot-out kneecaps covering the white couch cushions and dripping onto the plush rug. Initially, no suspects stand out, and the family points out how Jose’s business once had mob ties. Soon, the cops start to examine Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik Menendez (Gus Halper), the two sons with an ill-fitting alibi and $14 million in motive. Soon, lawyers get involved, including Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), a defense attorney who’s consistently in front of the camera. She’s introduced delivering a closing argument that contends her client did, in fact, kill his father, but that he should be excused because of his parents’ abusive past.
Needless to say, it works and Abramson becomes the obvious choice to handle the Menendez brothers.
One of the smartest things the show does is distance itself from the brand quickly. The title card looks familiar if a bit crowded, but the distinctive “chung chung” sound is slowed down for a darker, more ominous introduction. Similarly, the pithy transition music pops up between a few scenes in the pilot but is used less and less as the episode continues. The show uses time and place inserts to signal a chronological leap forward, but the black-and-white flashbacks, with accompanying voiceover, are thankfully dialed down.
The one detriment I can see, and it’s honestly minor in the long run, is that it’s a little hampered by it airing on network television. A cable or streaming series can go to more explicit places and even though this series airs at 10 PM, it still has to adhere to network censorship. It’s not glaringly obvious during the first episode but there are moments you kind of wish HBO or even FX, snatched this one up.
Edie Falco is the new Sarah Paulson, perm and all. There’s no Christopher Darden for her to flirt with, but she does have a male partner sharing the case, and the two series even share a few real-life figures (including Gil Garcetti and Robert Shapiro). Falco has been dazzling us for years from The Sopranos to Nurse Jackie and this is another tour de force performance. She may not look exactly like Abramson but she captures her spirit. Just watch a few clips of the real-life lawyer and you can see that Falco nails it.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders is worthy of your attention and could prove to be the latest true crime addiction. If ratings permit, NBC could have their own anthology series hit on their hands with plenty of juicy crimes to choose from for a future installment.