'Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders' is killer trash TV

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders (Photo: NBC)

Killer tabloid television, Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders inaugurates yet another Law & Order franchise and does so with a highly entertaining version of that perennial topic of true-crime curiosity: the 1989 murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez by their sons, Lyle and Eric. Packed with familiar faces in small roles and large wigs, The Menendez Murders — based on the first two episodes made available for review — gets producer Dick Wolf’s new anthology series off to a good, sordid start.

You may recall that sons Lyle (here played by Miles Gaston Villanueva) and Eric (played by Gus Halper) killed their parents after enduring years of abuse. They were defended in court by attorney Leslie Abramson, played by Edie Falco in hair that looks like a giant exploding dandelion. The eight-episode series premiering Tuesday begins with the deaths and the subsequent interrogation of suspects by cops including Parenthood’s Sam Jaeger and his porn-star mustache. Among those questioned by the police is Eric’s therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel, played by Josh Charles in a hairdo that looks like the prow of a yacht entering a harbor. Bonus points for casting Heather Graham in the small but showy role of Oziel’s emotionally distraught patient-mistress. (Other easily recognizable pop-ups: Anthony Edwards as a judge and Julianne Nicholson as Abramson’s defense-team partner.)

Written by L&O veteran Rene Balcer and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter (Homeland, Mad Men), this Law & Order has the trademark chung-chung two-note riff to introduce scenes and deploys the brand’s dramatic structure, with cop scenes followed by lawyer scenes. At the same time, Wolf and company are striving for something a bit more ambitious — a well-wrought piece of exploitation-TV in the manner of FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. The result, at least early on, is a solid merging of the two: Glatter’s direction is cleanly efficient, which serves to showcase the hammier performances well. Which is to say, Falco is good, but Josh Charles is doing the stuff that made me smile. Of course, smiling is not something you’re supposed to be doing while watching a show about a double homicide, but the pleasures of familiar facts presented in a lively, engaging way will not be denied.

Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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