The newest ripped-from-the-headlines yarn from superproducer Dick Wolf aspires to true-crime prestige in the vein of FX’s acclaimed American Crime Story franchise. At best, it’s a glossier Criminal Intent.
The eight-episode NBC series Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders centers on the 1989 murders of José and Mary “Kitty” Menendez in their tony Beverly Hills home — at the hands of their spoiled sons Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Erik (Gus Halper). Yet, it’s Emmy-winner Edie Falco as Erik’s tough-talking, compassionate defense attorney Leslie Abramson who rightly gets top billing (and prime promotional poster placement with that unruly blond mop on her head). Still, Abramson is barely a footnote in the first two episodes made available for review, as the writers struggle to weave her into the early stages of the investigation. (Here she is eating dinner with her husband as a TV in the background broadcasts a report on the murders! Here she is at a barbecue offering her theories on the case!)
It’s clunky storytelling techniques like this one — not to mention questionable black-and-white flashbacks detailing the brothers’ troubled history with their father — that wear away the potential shine. Particularly tawdry: an affair subplot involving Erik’s therapist (Josh Charles) and mistress Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham). To be fair, the dalliance serves an integral role in this story (I’ll avoid spoilers for those unfamiliar with the particulars of the case), but its overly dramatic rendering is pure Lifetime Original Movie.
Perhaps once Abramson takes a seat at counsel table and The Menendez Murders morphs into a genuine Edie Falco vehicle, it will find some redemption. But for now, it’s not winning in the court of appeals.