In a bid to jump on the recent popularity of the true crime genre and to revive the now-languishing Law & Order franchise, NBC launched Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders this September. Following in the footsteps of last year’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Law & Order True Crime chose an infamous 90’s murder story for its debut season. While its premise and branding scheme are similar to The People v. O.J. Simpson (whose title is also a callback to another successful franchise: creator Ryan Murphy’s other FX series American Horror Story), Law & Order True Crime stumbles more than its contemporary to tell a compelling story and fails to stand out in the already-crowded prestige drama genre.
One of the largest missteps in True Crime is its choice of subject matter. While the Menendez brothers’ murder of their parents was a national news story that has continued to resonate in pop culture since (references to the brothers are common, and multiple documentaries and TV specials about them have been produced in this year alone), the case is hardly a mystery for the purposes of a good true crime adaptation. NPR podcast series Serial did this best in its first season: while host Sarah Koenig had her own conceptions about the case she recounted on the show, whether or not the convicted murderer had actually committed the crime was up in the air throughout the entire series. In True Crime, we know almost from the very start that the Menendez brothers did it and they confess within the first half of the series. Waiting to find out how the two are sentenced is not a gripping narrative after that.
Furthermore, True Crime’s engagement with the criminal justice system is identical to that of its franchise predecessor. True Crime’s faithfulness to classic Law & Order tropes undermines much of the seriousness and credibility that the series aimed for as a cable prestige drama. Everything from the iconic ‘dun-dun’ during scene transitions to its choice of camera angles and to its use of veteran Law & Order: Criminal Intent actress Julianne Nicholson in a wig takes the viewer out of the drama and reminds them of the series from which True Crime got its name. While such choices make sense for brand synergy, they do not make the series an Emmy contender in the way American Crime Story or ABC’s true crime anthology American Crime is.
In keeping with its similarities to the Law & Order franchise, this miniseries easily could have been condensed into one episode of SVU, and maybe it should have been. By episode 4, any pretense of mystery had long dissipated and the shocking revelation of the Menendez brothers’ abuse at the hands of their father had also been revealed. There was little driving the viewer to want to watch any more than they already had. In fact, the first season of the original Law & Order did an episode based on the Menendez brothers, and after watching True Crime, 42 minutes seemed to be sufficient for a full retelling of this story.
On another note, True Crime endeavors to make its depiction of defense attorney Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco) as riveting as American Crime Story’s depiction of Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson). While Falco’s portrayal of Abramson is noteworthy and may yet earn her a Golden Globe or Emmy nomination in the Best Actress – Television Movie or Miniseries category, the character seems less nuanced than her American Crime Story counterpart. Part of that may have to do with Paulson’s masterful and Emmy-winning portrayal of Clark, but perhaps more of it comes from the lack of depth in Abramson’s characterization as compared to Clark’s. Abramson seems to be a typical Law & Order defense attorney: bullish in representing her client and smarmy in her interactions with the media and the prosecutors. There is much less intrigue in her characterization than there was in prosecutor Clark’s characterization, which was particularly lauded in the Ryan Murphy-directed episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia.”
As for True Crime’s depiction of law and the criminal justice system, the show’s biggest focus is a tried and true Law & Order mainstay: admission of evidence. The evidence in question consisted of recordings made by the Menendez brothers’ psychologist where the brothers confessed to the murders. The admission of the tapes and which tapes specifically are admitted goes back and forth throughout the first few episodes, and defense counsel appeals as far up as she can; she comes up with a mixed result (some tapes permitted, others not). We also get a hint of international law when an arrest warrant is issued for Erik while he is in Europe, and his first defense counsel fails to take advantage of that fact and negotiate with the authorities to make sure the death sentence is off the table. These few moments that cover the actual legal aspects of the case are far more interesting than the personal dramas that the series also chooses to focus on, namely the brothers’ relationships with a diverse group of family members whose names are rarely mentioned.
Overall, the True Crime iteration of Law & Order is fine. It does not break new ground in the recent true crime genre nor does it effectively renew the Law & Order franchise for the public. It fumbles both of those prospects: recounting a famous news story in a middling fashion, and rehashing the Law & Order tropes we know without iterating upon them. True Crime makes for a decent weekday evening binge, but if an SVU marathon is on TNT at the same time, it may be a better bet to go with the latter option.