Tuesday, September 26, 2017

REVIEW: 'Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders' - The Investigation Into the Murders Begins in 'Episode 1'

NBC's Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders - Episode 1.01 "Episode 1"

After Jose and Kitty Menendez are found murdered in their upscale Beverly Hills home, their eldest son, Lyle, maintains a stoic appearance while his younger brother, Erik, struggles to deal with overwhelming grief. As detectives Les Zoeller and Tom Linehan search for the killers, evidence begins to suggest that Lyle and Erik may be the prime suspects. A tenacious and energetic defense attorney, Leslie Abramson, takes an interest in the case.

It's clear in the opening moments of Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders what type of approach this creative team is taking with the material. It's going to be hyper-stylized while still fitting in the format of a broadcast network procedural story. It's a sensationalized approach to the story. Sweeping proclamations are going to be made. Connections are going to form because the plot needs them to. As such, things aren't all that subtle here. That's not particularly surprising given the creative team involved. This type of material isn't all that new for them though setting an entire season around one case is. It's big and broad with the intention of drawings lots of attention. It's not inherently bad. It just doesn't leave much to the imagination regarding the complexities of this case. It's the show saying definitively what is happening in this story. It's made that determination early on and it has affected the story. Every time the show flashes back to life with Jose and Kitty Menendez, it's told in black-and-white details with the perception of it being absolutely the truth. The way that framing device is used makes it come across as factual information for the audience. Because we are actually seeing it, it has to be a part of the official record of our own perception of this case. It's the show saying it's all truthful even though some of these details are still questioned to this day.

"Episode 1" begins with the almost operatic killings of Jose and Kitty Menendez. It's this wildly over-the-top sequence. The audience sees the two men holding the shotguns as they storm into the room and shoot the couple over and over again. Their faces aren't seen as if to create suspense over who killed them. But it's a very pointed sequence in order to build excitement. It's a heavily stylized moment to start the show on. It reveals that the show isn't going to be living in the ambiguity of the situation. It's actually depicting the murders. Jose and Kitty were just in a room watching TV when they were brutally and suddenly killed. They were slumped over the furniture so that their bodies could be artful displays of violence. It doesn't leave much to the imagination. It starts this way in order to build excitement. It's a tease of the central crime that starts this whole mystery. It then cuts to the 911 call that Lyle makes being juxtaposed with Detective Zoeller driving up to the mansion to begin the investigation of the crime. That sequence is very effective because it showcases the raw emotion on the other side of the line and how certain systems aren't well-prepared to handle something like this. But the show doesn't really delve too far into that.

Instead, this opening hour just begins to set everything up. There isn't a whole lot of story momentum. There is a lot of ground to cover in this case. But this hour is mostly focused on introducing the various characters as they are affected by this case in the immediate aftermath of it becoming headline news. This is vital information to have as well. Do Lyle and Erik seem like the grieving children of their parents' tragic murders? Their actions can be perceived a number of different ways. Erik is an emotional mess often reduced to a fetal position in the corner of a room. He's not doing well in the aftermath at all. His family is worried about him being suicidal because Kitty apparently had those thoughts as well. Of course, the show isn't being all that subtle in this regard. It's once again the medium depicting a case of chronic depression with a woman being unable to get out of bed or stop crying. That's just such a lackluster depiction of this disease. It's so much more complicated than that. Not according to this show though. That's basically all that needs to be known about Kitty. She had these issues that weren't really under control. Erik has issues as well that aren't exactly being treated appropriately either. His therapist is concerned about him possibly being suicidal. He makes a note to see him soon. But that's almost an afterthought in that scene. It's more important that he tells the family not to worry and to keep his mistress happy by seducing her in the office.

Meanwhile, everyone is questioning the spending habits of Lyle. He doesn't seem to be affected by his parents' deaths at all. He's just buying lots of luxury items like nothing traumatic has happened in his life. The situation is more complicated than that. He's getting his brother a new suit so that they can represent the family well at the memorial service. But he's also indulging in some new watches as well. Those play more as show-off pieces during that same event. It's largely just to set up a pattern of Lyle being the more calculating and less emotional one while Erik is the one spiraling out of control. Lyle is the one with a reckless abandon in his life. His thoughts are scattered which highlight the trauma he has endured as well. Trauma does present itself in different ways for different people. But it still contributes to a scattered main story throughout this premiere. It's telling the audience what's important. But it's largely just hitting the most scandalous plot points possible in order to make this story as exciting as it can be. It treats the fact that there was a movie script about killing one's parents as seriously and damning a piece of evidence as Lyle destroying a potentially new will on the computer. That just seems odd and random. The movie script is largely to sway opinion against them. It's just an odd detail to get hung up on and give so much importance in the main storyline.

Furthermore, Edie Falco's defense attorney Leslie Abramson is coming across as smarter than everyone else on the show. She's able to just determine that Erik and Lyle are responsible for their parents' murder the moment she hears about this case. It's a snap judgment that just so happens to be right. She is able to solve this case in a matter of minutes. She figures that family is the only explanation for the type of anger inflicted on Jose and Kitty. She thinks it's so obvious. All of this allows the audience to connect with her right away. We have the benefit of hindsight and knowing exactly what's going to happen next with this case. We know that the brothers are going to be charged for this crime and put on trial where Leslie defends them. Even if one didn't know that heading into this show, it seems pretty obvious in the plotting of this premiere. The first introduction of Leslie is in the courtroom where she is getting someone off for murder by arguing a case about abuse. That's going to be a huge focal point of the Menendez case as well. Again, if you didn't know that before, this premiere really hammers it home. Jose was always upset and disappointed with his children because he thought they were entitled. He always saw them as getting into trouble and not worthy of the vast fortune he has built over the years. Money seems to be a huge focus in this story. Jose wanted to cut his sons out of his will. So, the sons killed him and Kitty to ensure that didn't happen. That's the theory that the detectives are working with right now. It's solid motivation for this case. It brings things to a nice conclusion. But things have to be more complicated than that. Right now, the show is approaching things in a very simple way. That could become problematic later on if the show doesn't want to delve into the nuances of these characters. Right now, Falco is playing things seriously but everyone else seems to be in a slightly heightened reality. That's a little distracting. It makes all of this feel like a performance that needs to hit the next plot point as soon as possible. It doesn't provide commentary on the world at large and how the specifics of this case are informed by the world as these characters are living in it. So, it all feels a little too obvious and manipulative at this point in the run.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 1" was written by René Balcer and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter.
  • There are just so many recognizable faces amongst this ensemble. The casting department really went after some noticeable names for this production. Of course, Edie Falco is the star. But it's nice to see Josh Charles pop up as the therapist with Heather Graham as his mistress. Or Elizabeth Reaser as the prosecutor and Sam Jaeger as the lead detective. Or Constance Marie as the brothers' aunt who knows more about the business. Or Anthony Edwards in a brief appearance as a judge.
  • However, the story with Dr. Jerome Oziel and his mistress seems very much like a soap opera. It's a little ridiculous and more campy than anything else in this show. Again, it happens for a reason. It's easy to see why Erik would need therapy even though it was ordered for a previous misdemeanor of his. But it's also a very broadcast network-friendly, sanitized version of a sexual affair. 
  • None of the brothers' friends or acquaintances really stand out in a memorable way though. There's the tennis instructor who is annoyed that he's being delayed by the detectives. There's the guy who co-wrote the movie script and is very forthcoming with information. There's the guy Lyle wants to go into business with. And there's a potential love interest who seems especially superfluous.
  • So, Lyle wants to buy a restaurant and a trucking company in the hopes of turning them into franchises. He has this grand idea of how to turn it into a profitable business. But it does come across as very scattered and reckless. He's not making much sense even though he's actually out there living in the world unlike Erik.
  • Leslie and her husband are also expecting a baby. They are preparing for that while she is still working. Everything with her though is either about this baby or the Menendez case. Even when she's just hanging out with friends, the Menendez case seems to be all that anyone wants to talk about - with Leslie giving her correct theory about what happened.