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posted: 9/26/2017 6:00 AM

'Law & Order' applies its style to true crime, but 'Menendez Murders' lacks allure

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  • Miles Gaston Villanueva, left, is Lyle Menendez and Gus Halper plays Erik Menendez in NBC's "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders," premiering Tuesday, Sept. 26.

    Miles Gaston Villanueva, left, is Lyle Menendez and Gus Halper plays Erik Menendez in NBC's "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders," premiering Tuesday, Sept. 26.
    Courtesy of Justin Lubin-NBC

 
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post

The Dick Wolf empire's new but not exactly compelling eight-part miniseries for NBC, "Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders" (premiering Tuesday), can be interpreted as an envious response to the thunder-stealing, sensational 2016 series "The People v. O.J. Simpson," the first of FX's "American Crime Story" franchise. The point is to dramatize cases that are actually true, rather than cases that are almost-true in the "ripped from the headlines" style that made Wolf's original "Law & Order" such an enduring hit.

Ripping stories from the headlines and fictionalizing them is certainly efficient (in Wolf's make-believe landscape of criminal justice, a case rarely takes longer than a load of laundry to see itself through), but our culture's current voracious appetite for true crime wants to know more about the complexities and ambiguities of truth, rather than admire the swiftness and ease of fiction. Podcasts, documentary series and reality shows abound in which well-meaning narrators comb over old details in unsolved cases, and it hardly matters if the evidence is neither fresh nor conclusive. Firm endings are no longer a requirement if the story is really more about the journey. Meandering and hypothesizing are presented as virtues.

In both fiction and nonfiction, dragging things out is a fashionable way to get to the dark heart of a crime -- and it takes considerable talent and imagination to pull it off. What producer Ryan Murphy and his collaborators achieved so smoothly in "People v. O.J." does not translate as well to Wolf's "Law & Order" realm -- and the first problem may well be the choice of material.

Where Simpson's murder trial still serves as a ready-made platform to discuss such thorny matters as justice, race and fame, what's all that interesting about the Menendez brothers -- Lyle and Erik -- locked up for all time for the coldblooded murders of their parents in 1989? What's this story really about? An undercurrent of "who cares?" runs through the first two episodes.

The series opens with José and Kitty Menendez (Carlos Gómez and Lolita Davidovich) being blown away by shotgun blasts while watching TV on a Sunday night in their Beverly Hills mansion. Their sons, 21-year-old Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) and 19-year-old Erik (Gus Halper), come home from the movies and make a frantic call to 911 -- at least, that's their story and they're sticking to it for an episode and a half, until, as we all know, they're arrested. Homicide detectives take over the crime scene while Lyle and Erik pretend they're innocent.

Lyle, a Princeton dropout imbued with the newfound confidence of an heir apparent, decides he's going to open a chain of Buffalo-wings restaurants (hey, he was onto something there) and charges new suits and fancy wristwatches to his dead father's credit card. Erik, the younger brother who seemed to inherit his mother's tendency for anxiety attacks, tries to focus on his dreams of becoming a pro-tennis star, but soon spills his guts to his therapist, Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles).

The "Law & Order" style is very much in use here (even the telltale "dun-dun" sound effect has come along for the ride) and, with its circa-1990 styling and fashions, there's a funny feeling that the franchise's rock has accidentally rolled all the way back to the bottom of its hill.

Villanueva and Halper are bland as the Menendez brothers, but, to their credit, older viewers will recall that the actual Menendez brothers weren't so exciting to begin with. There's something exceedingly cut-and-dried about this case -- something so banal in its evildoing -- that it wouldn't measure up to most of the episodes in "Law & Order's" considerable library of reruns. In another time, the Menendez murders were the stuff of mediocre made-for-TV movies, the kind that were told in two hours, tops.

Yet there remains one very good reason to watch "The Menendez Murders," and of course it's Emmy winner Edie Falco ("Nurse Jackie," "The Sopranos"), who stars as Leslie Abramson, a tenacious, media-savvy defense attorney who can't resist the chance to represent the brothers.

Falco is so much better than the rest of the cast that the show quickly splits itself into terrific scenes that she is in vs. ho-hum scenes that she is not. Along with her performance comes the faintest whiff of a notion that the Menendez case (which would drag on for three long years, an eternity in "Law & Order" time) was, along with the Rodney King police brutality trials, a dry run for the Simpson saga.

But what "The Menendez Murders" still lacks -- in both real life and this retelling -- is a clear shot at the viewer's empathy or interest, even as Abramson begins to zero in on the abuse Lyle and Erik say they suffered at the hands of their father. What you have here is a drawn-out period piece about a period and an event that aren't worth remembering.

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"Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders" premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 26, on NBC.

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