‘Law & Order True Crime: The Mendendez Murders’ Brings the Franchise Full Circle

A new direction for the ‘Law & Order’ brand welcomes a lot of old comparisons.
By  · Published on September 27th, 2017

Dun Dun. Reject Media Atlanta Office. Wednesday, September 27

For a few minutes, it didn’t seem like the signature clanging sound effect would ring out in Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders. Then, “dun dun,” and we were sure where we were. In the den of Dick Wolf, but with a twist. One long-running TV franchise met the current TV trend as Law & Order ventures into not just anthology limited series territory but also historical true crime stories.

Actually, Law & Order has always been close to this superficially new direction. The original show and its spinoffs have been through numerous lead characters and ongoing story arcs. It’s also been based on real-life crimes since the start. In fact, its first season, which premiered one year following the Menendez murders, includes an episode (#19, “The Serpent’s Tooth”) loosely based on the case.

Now what was just “ripped from the headlines” (and aired two years before the case reached its peak awareness with the actual Menendez brothers trial Court TV broadcast in 1993) is now literally adapted from the full story. What’s most notably different is that in “The Serpent’s Tooth” the fictionalized brothers turn out to be innocent, their parents having been killed by the mob, whereas in reality they committed the double murder and tried to make it look like an organized crime job.

Anyone looking to Law & Order True Crime for another American Crime Story, specifically its first and very successful season, The People v O.J. Simpson, were probably disappointed with the cheesiness of last night’s premiere episode. And anyone looking for something as formally familiar as the rest of the Law & Order brand were likely thrown off by some of the star-studded ensemble set-up of the first part.

Those of us who like both strains, however, ought to be fine with the mix. Yet still potentially confused about how all the players will fit together. Unlike other Law & Order shows, which stick mostly to a case-of-the-week episodic structure, this one extends a single case over an eight-part miniseries run. And the first part doesn’t do the best job with character introductions for viewers not familiar with the whole Menendez story.

The basics are pretty simple: Jose and Kitty Mendendez (Carlos Gomez and Lolita Davidovitch) are gunned down by an unknown assailant(s). Detectives Zoeller and Linehan (Sam Jaeger and Cliff Chamberlain) investigate the crime and quickly begin to suspect the couple’s sons Erik and Lyle (Gus Halper and Miles Gaston Villanueva). As does defense attorney Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), who does get a nice intro, from the first shot of the back of her wig through a similar court case and her immediate realization of the boys’ guilt.

Abramson, of course, will be a central figure in the narrative as part of the Mendendez brothers’ legal team (technically she was only Erik’s attorney). But did anyone wonder about the brief appearance of Anthony Edwards as a judge? How about Josh Charles as a seemingly ethically corrupt psychiatrist and Heather Graham as his kinky mistress in an extensive scene that appeared to have no relevance whatsoever?

Well, we’ll see more of Edwards later, as he’s specifically Hon. Stanley Weisberg, the judge who presided over both of the Menendez brothers’ trials. And the Charles and Graham characters will be plenty significant when Erik confesses to the former during a therapy session, then the psychiatrist tells his mistress, who later tells the police. Whether or not tapes recorded by Charles’s character would be admissible in court was an issue that kept the trial from happening for many years.

We also just barely get to meet Deputy DA Pamela Bozanich, played by Elizabeth Reaser, but that’s okay because we rarely see much of the prosecution side — that’s the “law” side — at the start of a Law & Order storyline. Later in the series, we’ll likely see a lot of Reaser and not so much of Jaeger and Chamberlain. Falco as Abramson being so prominent isn’t exactly on brand with the franchise but is on point with the trend it’s following.

Falco and her hair and her role as a losing lawyer in a high-profile murder trial especially invite the comparisons to The People v O.J. Simpson and its greatest player, Sarah Paulson. (Interestingly enough, Erik’s first lawyer was Robert Shapiro, who would go on to defend O.J. Simpson and be portrayed in that miniseries by John Travolta). It’s too early to say for sure, but given the shallow yet serviceable writing alone it’s doubtful that Falco will be able to give a truly comparable performance. The Menendez Murders in general isn’t bad but it’s showing no sign of award-worthiness out of the gate. But Law & Order and its offshoots have never been major winners save for guest star honors anyway.

Not everything can be as spectacular as a Ryan Murphy production on FX. Dick Wolf’s franchise is still dependable for lower-key network programming, and this one will take a little longer to find its footing as an ensemble piece with a briefer running time, episodically and in total. The Menendez case is also much more cut and dry than the O.J. Simpson trial.

The most we can do, especially if we’re old enough to recall any part of the story, is look forward to some ’90s nostalgia (and in the case of the first episode, a bit of late ’80s awesomeness in the form of Tone Loc blasting from an IROC-Z) and not think too much of prior versions, from “The Serpent’s Tooth” to the 1994 TV movie starring Edward James Olmos as Jose Menendez to Ben Stiller’s Menendez trial spoof in The Cable Guy, too much.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.