The first time “Law & Order” creator and executive producer Dick Wolf attempted to tell the story of the Menendez brothers, it was in the first-season episode “The Serpent’s Tooth,” which aired in March 1991. In the episode, wealthy squash aficionados Greg (Stephen Mailer) and Nick (Matt Hofherr) Jarmon are held on suspicion of murdering their parents, Evelyn and Karl, after the two are shot point blank with one of the family’s shotguns. The details were sanded off, but the voyeurist rush of peering into a scandal remained.
As is the case with many such “Law & Order” episodes, the central moral quandary didn’t need to be solved because of a third act twist. In real life, Lyle and Erik Menendez killed their parents, confessed to the murders, alleged physical and sexual abuse at the hands of both parents and in 1996 were sent to prison without the possibility of parole. In “The Serpent’s Tooth,” the detectives finds another lead, a suspect who ultimately exonerates the sons. It’s a neater, nicer story.
With “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” — which does use the signature two-note sound cue — Wolf’s expansive franchise takes its favorite marketing phrase and, for once, attempts to follow through to the complicated finish. But the moral quandary cannot be pirouetted away from: The stubborn facts of the case must be reckoned with. The ambiguity in the story of Eric and Lyle Menendez, who are both in prison without parole, is not if they did it — they did — but if the alleged abuse mitigates that crime or, more practically, their sentence. Wolf has declared his own bias already, and it’s one that feels familiar from watching years of his shows, where victims using extrajudicial means to settle their scores are tacitly offered sympathy. “This is a show that has an agenda to it,” he said at the Television Critics Assn. press tour in August. “They probably should have been out eight or 10 years ago because they probably should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter.” Based on remarks he made at the Television Critics Assn. press tour and elsewhere, it seems that Wolf is less concerned with the justice system’s harsh sentencing than he is with the particulars of this case.
The result has a way of obliquely demonstrating what made “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” so brilliant: It wasn’t the wigs or the self-seriousness, which “The Menendez Murders” has in spades; it was the relentless contextualizing. “The Menendez Murders” offers a little, but not enough. And the “Law & Order” spinoff goes further: It draws the viewer into its gambit.
Of the two episodes presented to critics, the first is markedly better: The scene is set in 1989 Beverly Hills, with tactics that use both the style of “Law & Order” and more sophisticated approaches. The opening scene, in which the camera rakes over the bloody bodies of Joe and Kitty Menendez, is over-the-top yet chillingly effective at conveying the intimate horror of the crime; the parents were watching TV on their couch when their sons opened fire. A detective’s lone drive through Beverly Hills is overlaid with the brothers’ frantic 911 call. In the foreground, the usually controlled Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) sounds hysterical. In the background, Erik (Gus Halper) — the sensitive one — can be heard moaning with grief, as if possessed.
Around the murder, the show revels in the trashier details of this period production. The hair is bad; the clothes are worse. Right before he is arrested, Lyle swings into his open-top Jeep Wrangler wearing a Nantucket red button-down and khakis, next to a friend in an absurd upswept do with a sweater tied around his neck. (You almost expect one of them to turn to the other and shout, “Orange mocha frappuccinos!”) MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” is playing loudly as they swerve through the side streets of Beverly Hills.
The cast populates quickly, with many recognizable faces: Josh Charles, Elizabeth Reaser, Anthony Edwards and Heather Graham all have supporting roles. But it’s Edie Falco as Leslie Abramson who keys into the emotional element of the case. No matter how the show does, it will be a reel-worthy performance from Falco, who commits to her showstopping perm and her character’s odd sympathy for dangerous young men in equal parts. And the show is stronger around her: With Leslie, the series can ease into the well-worn “Law & Order” storytelling arc of a driven attorney. Every actor, from Falco to supporting players Reaser and Edwards, seems to be relishing the chance to ham it up a little, and at least in that arena, “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” delivers admirably.
At first it is surprising, for a franchise that is almost entirely about detectives, that the investigators of the case are barely impressionable enough to make it through a bit of crime-scene banter. As the series progresses, it becomes clear that director and executive producer Lesli Linka Glatter’s camerawork — which, characteristically, elevates the material she’s working with — is inviting viewers themselves to become the detective, themselves. Erik and Lyle are the main characters, but they are depicted with an odd lack of interiority — a flatness that forces the viewer to home in on every casual gesture, every dropped phrase. Except that because this is a re-enactment performed by actors, the investigation feels disingenuous. Showrunner and executive producer Rene Balcer has said that previously unknown facts will play a role in “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” but it is difficult to imagine unearthing new exonerating material in this almost campy format. Details in the first two episodes suggest that flashbacks will dramatize the alleged abuse between parents and sons when that comes to light. Regrettably, any indication that the abuse is in reality alleged might be hard to find. In depicting nonfiction material, there is a covenant of trust with the viewer to present a case impartially, and by the second episode, that trust has mostly evaporated.
“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” might be most interesting — and most illuminating — in the context of Wolf’s oeuvre, which has produced and packaged urban horror on television for decades. There are questionable elements to “Law & Order,” as a whole, but it’s hard to deny how compulsively watchable and generally entertaining it is. But “Law & Order” accomplishes that through artifice, not honesty; the franchise glosses over the real drudgery of police work, or the deadly boring proceedings of county courtrooms, because that rarely makes for good TV.
“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” is, curiously, taking the tried-and-true Wolf vision and inverting it: not ripping from the headlines but ripping into the headlines. The crime franchise typically seeks to scandalize real life, either through curation or elision. With this miniseries, is the goal to de-scandalize the Menendez murders — or re-scandalize them? Either way, the show shrugs off responsibility; it places the onus of judgment on the viewer, which, given the stated biases of the production, is disingenuous indeed. This is a show addicted to its own thrills without asking why. Where “People v. O.J.” was an analysis of race and gender masquerading as a trashy, stilted soap opera, this series is simply a soap opera — baited with the barbed hook of reasonable doubt. It’s titillation with a veneer of utility. I confess it is hard to look away.
Correction, Sept. 27, 8:44 a.m. PT: An earlier version of this review stated that the limited series does not use “Law & Order’s” signature two-note sound cue. It does, albeit sparingly.