Warning: This recap of ‘Episode 1’ of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders contains spoilers.
Although Executive Producer Dick Wolf is, in television terms, galactic overlord of all crime entertainment, he still has dreams. Sometimes steering forty thousand successful crime procedurals simply isn’t enough, especially when a young upstart like Ryan Murphy swoops in and places hilarious wigs on A-list talent and then gobbles up Emmy awards like the Hamburglar. Dick Wolf has been doing ripped-from-the-headlines, arguably campy crime retellings for what feels like centuries now! How had he suddenly found himself bested at his own game? So it’s time, finally, for him to show everyone how it’s done. Ladies and gentlemen, the names have not been changed: Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders is here.
Unfortunately, the Menendez family killings are no O.J. Simpson trial. For one thing, we already know who the killers are, whereas there are people in the world who still don’t fully know (or accept) the common consensus about who murdered Nicole Brown Simpson. Further, the O.J. trial was about much more than O.J. Simpson while, at best, the Menendez trial allowed Inside Edition to fawn over a couple of hunks for a few months. That being said, this is a Law & Order series, so its production values are top-notch and the cast is wonderful. And yes, it absolutely steps to American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s wig game. For that reason alone, Dick Wolf has another winner on his hands. Let’s get into what works about it.
That is a lot of words for a title, but in my opinion they are accurate! This is definitely a true crime series from the makers of Law & Order about the Menendez murders. And it’s not just a branding thing… this series maintains the original procedurals’ format by alternating between cops and lawyers, with dramatic flashbacks mixed in:
It’s also, uh, pretty frank with its onscreen violence:
Whereas The People v. O.J. Simpson was remarkably restrained when it came to its depiction of the inciting incident, this thing began with the onscreen, graphic shotgunning of Jose & Kitty Menendez in their living room. Which, strong choice, I guess?
The series’ first hour showed how the Beverly Hills police department initially ruled out sons Lyle & Erik Menendez as suspects on account of them being upright, tennis playing, rich hunks from a respected family. No lie detector tests, very polite interrogations, stuff like that. Though, to be fair, the mustachioed detective walked into the crime scene openly trash-talking rich folks, so we were definitely meant to take note of the class issues at play here. Because, as we were about to find out, sometimes rich hunks DO murder.
The actors playing Erik and Lyle Menendez are perfect on several levels, but Lyle’s wig was especially hilarious. He’s introduced as the calm, robotic sociopath with a fondness for Rolexes while Erik was the shy, traumatized one whose favorite hobby was sobbing on the floor. And because we already know they are the killers, the episode mostly focused on how badly they planned the hit, up to and including going on a shopping spree three days after their parents’ murder (and charging everything to their father’s credit card). Slightly suspicious, guys.
But let’s be real, if you tuned into this premiere, you came to see its star: EDIE FALCO’S WIG. And it is glorious. That masterpiece receives top billing for a reason.
Second billing goes to Edie Falco herself, as the bros’ eventual attorney Leslie Abramson. And yes, she too is wonderful. Not sure if she’ll ever reach Sarah Paulson levels of transcendence, but so far the parallels between the two shows are clear: A strong, competent lawyer with an incredible perm just happens to get roped into the case of her lifetime. But in this case, Abramson’s READY for the challenge. (Mostly because she’d made a career defending justifiable homicide, and she knew the brothers were killers the second she laid eyes on them.)
The third biggest star was probably the ferret living on Kitty Menendez’s bathroom counter. Look at that little guy! What did he know? Who did he see? We did not see a scene of the detectives interrogating the ferret via a pet psychic, but hopefully that will come in future episodes.
Kitty Menendez herself was played in flashbacks by the great Lolita Davidovich, who is very good at sobbing in bed and also getting murdered. Will Kitty do more than these things in future episodes? We’ll just have to stay tuned.
Elizabeth Reaser plays a deputy district attorney who only showed up for one scene, mostly to show off her unhip 1989-era detective outfit. Also, disappointingly she seemed to be not wearing a wig, so that seemed like a missed opportunity. I’m thinking braids with beads would have looked great here.
Playing Edie Falco’s perm’s husband is True Blood‘s Chris Bauer who was ALSO in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Relax, Dick Wolf. We’re already on board! Anyway, this was the glimpse into Leslie Abramson’s personal life: She was already parent to a grown child but looking to adopt a baby. Between this and her career and also basic perm maintenance, this lady sure can manage her time!
This is how Josh Charles looks in this thing. No complaints here, obviously. He plays a shady-seeming therapist on the Menendez’ boys’ payroll. It was unclear how he’ll factor into the saga (I honestly have no recollection of most of this case), but we definitely needed to know that he was currently cheating on his wife with an especially horny Heather Graham:
And I am still laughing about Heather Graham’s wig. It is low-key almost as good as Edie Falco’s. Those wispy asymmetrical bangs! Man, 1989 was a rough year.
Rounding out the familiar faces was Anthony Edwards as some random judge on one of Leslie Abramson’s cases. We could tell the two were very adversarial and frenemies at best, so something tells me he’ll get assigned to the Menendez case later. Just a hunch!
Again, because the seemingly straightforward real-life saga has been divided into eight parts, “Episode 1” didn’t have much a twist or cliffhanger to end on. Mostly just the idea that Erik Menendez (the sensitive one) was poised to confess his part in the murder at any given moment. But, again, duh. Aside from simply shading in the details and providing insight on angles we hadn’t considered, the main purpose of L&OTC: The Menendez Murders is simple recreation, not innovative storytelling. But it’s well done and at eight episodes seems like a tidy little journey that hopefully won’t overstay its welcome.
“Episode 1” was fun enough — again, those wigs! — and the Law & Order house style (complete with that immortal chung-chung sound effect) remains essentially perfect entertainment. And there is something compelling about the idea of a Law & Order-style show that is both serialized and procedural. Also it’s about real people! In 1989! I’m not as immediately blown away by it as I was with The People v. O.J. Simpson, but until Ryan Murphy’s franchise returns, this seems like as good a bet as any. Congratulations, Dick Wolf. Will you watch again? Take our poll!
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on NBC.
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