What could possibly go wrong?
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders - Season 1
Credit: Justin Lubin/NBC

Before there was O.J., the Menendez murders were the high-profile case that took the world by storm — made all the more tantalizing for its connections to Hollywood and the sunny, idyllic streets of Beverly Hills. There’s something particularly tantalizing about true-crime stories from Los Angeles: the dichotomy between sunshine and noir, outward perfection masking dark secrets. When Mary “Kitty” Menendez and Jose Menendez were murdered in their high-security Beverly Hills mansion and the top suspects ended up being their sons, it captured the attention of the nation.

Now, the ins and outs of this 28-year-old case have become the fodder for the latest entry in Dick Wolf’s television empire — and the first Law & Order to employ the miniseries format. The procedural franchise has often looked to ripped-from-the-headlines stories, but with Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, they’re moving from thinly veiled stand-ins to the real figures, digging into the psychology of the players — the murderers, the detectives, the lawyers, and the psychiatrists.

Let’s take a look at what went down in the first hour of this eight-hour miniseries.

The Murders and the Investigation

“Guns, pills, and money – what could possibly go wrong here?”—Detective Zoeller

Rather than open with Law & Order’s signature “dun-dun,” we begin with eerie, low music and a silent film-style murder — the horrified faces of Kitty and Jose Menendez (Lolita Davidovich, Carlos Gómez) and the smoking muzzle of a shotgun. The murders themselves are suitably gruesome but still appropriate for a broadcast network (and for that I thank this show).

Detective Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) winds his way through Beverly Hills in the dark (early in the morning of Aug. 21, 1989, according to the signature Law & Order timecard) as we hear Lyle Menendez’s now infamous 911 call play over the scene. “Someone killed my parents” he sobs, barely intelligible.

As the police question Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and brother Erik (Gus Halper), we learn their father was the CEO of a movie company that may have had seedy ties to the mob and Kitty struggled with suicidal thoughts and depression.

Zoeller continues his investigation of the crime scene — and possibly compromises it by allowing the brothers to reenter their home and get their gear for tennis practice. Yes, their parents were just murdered, but they cannot miss their serve time. In the house, Zoeller finds a litany of ominous items: 22-caliber shotguns, pills for anxiety and sleep disorders, AND FERRETS (dun-dun).

Detective Zoeller questions Mr. Menendez’s former coworkers, who reveal that the family relocated to Beverly Hills from Calabasas after Erik broke into a neighbor’s house. (Here, after 13 full minutes, we finally hear that “dun-dun” — the suspense of wondering when or if it might show up was killing me.) Deputy District Attorney Pam Bozanich (Elizabeth Reaser) suggests ties to a “gang-banger” from the family’s days in the valley, and Zoeller retorts with a line that perfectly captures why the Menendez murders fascinated the nation: “It’s gotta be the bangers or the mob or Charlie Manson, always an outsider, because nobody bad lives in Beverly Hills.”

But it’s looking increasingly likely that the Menendez brothers might be suspects. The investigators talk to friend and former tennis coach Perry, whom Lyle and Erik claimed they were supposed to meet the night of the murders. Perry reveals it was the boys who never showed up for their arranged meeting and tells the detectives that Lyle was suspended from Princeton for plagiarism. Even worse, in a plot twist that you would not believe if this weren’t based on a true story, Erik wrote a screenplay with former high school classmate Craig in which the main character kills his rich parents — and it was all Erik’s idea.

The last piece in the puzzle before the detectives officially name Lyle and Erik as suspects is the missing Menendez will. The family has been unable to find a recent, official copy of a will outlining the inheritance of their sizable estate. Jose’s sister Marta (Constance Marie) and his brother-in-law Carlos (Alejandro Furth) both reveal that Jose had threatened to cut Lyle and Erik out of the will altogether out of anger that they were cruising through life waiting for their inheritance. This version of the will was never found, but Uncle Carlos found a computer file named “Will” he could not open, which was later wiped from the hard drive.

The Menendez brothers are now officially suspects. (Recap continues on page 2)

Lyle and Erik

We also get more of a glimpse into the minds and lives of Erik and Lyle Menendez — and the radically different ways they react to the murder of their parents. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, so it’s hard not to see the boys through the lens of the knowledge that they will be found guilty, and the show leans into that.

Erik is the curly-haired younger brother who sobs his way through his police interrogation, his parents’ funeral, and more — his relatives worry about him as he spends his days curled in the fetal position in the corner of his room. Lyle is the cool, collected brother with the quiet grin and (suspicious) bowl cut. In interrogation, they explain how they went to the movies and came home to find the house full of gun smoke and their parents’ dead bodies.

Lyle quickly takes charge, renting rooms at the Hotel Bel-Air for the family, buying Armani suits and diamond-encrusted watches to wear to the funeral, and investing in fancy cars and restaurants he intends to convert into a chain of hot-wing joints near college campuses. He tells family members their allowance was $180 a month (equal to about $360 today), so they turn over his father’s company card, which sends him on a spending spree that in no way makes him look like he might have killed his parents for his inheritance. Not suspicious at all, Lyle.

In contrast, Erik is quiet and withdrawn, rejecting his brother’s urging that he buy an expensive watch and suit. The episode concludes with him returning to the family home and having a breakdown in the living room, where he flashes back to the room as it looked as a blood-spattered crime scene.

This episode makes heavy use of black-and-white flashbacks to give us a window into what might have motivated the murders. In Lyle’s case, we see him arguing with his dad over paying for a trip to Europe to visit his girlfriend Jamie, who will be on a tennis tour overseas. Jose believes Jamie is a gold digger, and he paid for her sponsorship to get her away from Lyle. We also see Jamie in the present day, comforting the brothers and questioning Lyle about his inability to manage his money.

Erik’s flashbacks show us a glimpse of his mother before the murders. She is catatonic and crying in bed as he tries to cajole her into coming to watch his tennis practice, assuring her the whole family loves her.

Uncle Carlos remembers the night Jose told him he was going to cut his sons out of the will – Jose calls the girls his sons are dating “sluts” and insists they will “have to get by on their own initiative.”

Finally, we see Lyle asking the computer tech to erase the files for the new will from the computer, telling the guy that he plans to sell the computer, so he needs it to look as if the files were never there.

Leslie Abramson

Abramson (Edie Falco), the notoriously intense and sometimes ethically questionable defense lawyer for the Menendez brothers, has been billed as the show’s top hook, with Falco’s image dominating marketing for the series — in a wig that seems to operate on the theory that a terrible perm won Sarah Paulson an Emmy, so this should do the trick.

Though it will be some time before Abramson is directly involved in the case, we get glimpses of her here. We’re introduced to Abramson while she is defending a boy against murder for killing his abusive father. She argues that he should only be charged with manslaughter lest the conviction be “his father’s last act of terror, with you as his accomplice.” We’re meant to see Abramson as a forceful defense lawyer — from her stirring closing remarks to her threats to knee a reporter in the crotch. It’s less-than-subtle foreshadowing of the same defense case she will build for the Menendez brothers.

Other than that, we see her talking to the Menendez family lawyer in court and postulating that the boys are the true killers. At a dinner party, people remark on how this is even more shocking than the murder of Sharon Tate, and Abramson ominously rebuts, “There’s only one thing that can generate that level of anger — family.”

Dr. Jerome Oziel

Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles, moving from The Good Wife to The Bad Wig) is Erik’s court-mandated psychiatrist following the incidents in Calabasas. We briefly meet Dr. Oziel at the family gathering, and we see him again in his office taking a phone call from Erik’s uncle, who is concerned about his nephew’s wellbeing and worries Erik may be a suicide risk.

We also meet Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham), an underwritten cast-off from a soap opera plot. Smyth, Oziel’s mistress, refers to him by the cringe-worthy name “Dr. Daddy.” (The writers wouldn’t include such a ludicrous name if it weren’t a real-life detail…would they?) She pressures Oziel about leaving his wife — a point of conflict that will have major repercussions in the case.

And there we have it. The boys are officially suspects. Will we see an arrest next week? We can only assume — the case took seven years and three juries before a final conviction, and we only get eight hours of television to tell this story.

Episode Recaps

Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders
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