Friday, September 22, 2017

TV REVIEW: NBC's 'Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders'

NBC will premiere its new original drama series Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders on Tuesday, September 26 at 10/9c. following the season premiere of This Is Us. The drama stars Edie Falco, Gus Halper, Miles Gaston Villanueva, Anthony Edwards, Julianne Nicholson, Constance Marie, Carlos Gomez, Sam Jaeger, Lolita Davidovich, Heather Graham, Elizabeth Reaser and Josh Charles.

Read on for my thoughts on the anthology series after screening its first two episodes.

The Law & Order format has been a mainstay of the television industry for 27 years show. The original show ties the record of longest-running live-action drama with Gunsmoke. Meanwhile, Law & Order: SVU is potentially poised to beat that record in just a few more years. It's a title that still does well for NBC as a part of its primetime lineup. Plus, it continues to do well in syndication in all of its forms. There's basically an episode of Law & Order airing somewhere every day. That's impressive. It was a game-changing show. It's also incredibly famous for its "ripped-from-the-headlines" storytelling. It was the show that popularized such narrative choices. It took real-life stories and fictionalized them just enough to offer viewers a satisfying mystery and conclusion in the span of one hour. But the latest spinoff of the franchise is aiming to do something incredibly different. Instead of doing "ripped-from-the-headlines," it is actually producing the headlines exactly as they were. Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders sets out to tell the story of the murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez in the 1990s. It's an eight-episode contained season that will cover every detail of this case from the trials to convictions of Lyle and Erik Menendez for the crimes. It's something new for the network and producer Dick Wolf. But his name on a project still carries heft and legitimacy.

Unfortunately, Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders feels like a pretty blatant cash grab after the success of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story over on FX last year. That show hit in the cultural zeitgeist in such a profound way. It went on to win multiple Emmys and top many critics' year-end best in TV lists. It didn't start the trend in nonfiction storytelling in this medium. But it did popularize it in an extreme way. Many networks are trying to find their own hook in the genre. It's been a good creative boom for ID as it has expanded its core programming. Meanwhile, Oxygen and Spike have struggled to find their footing as they chase after more prestigious fare. Then, Discovery and USA have had success over the last few weeks in this particular genre with Manhunt: Unabomber and The Sinner. And yet, The Menendez Murders largely makes one appreciate just how well done The People v. O.J. Simpson was and helps build excitement for the next iteration of American Crime Story - which will focus on the assassination of Gianni Versace.

Now, that sounds incredibly harsh for this show. To a certain extent, it is. This show can't compare to the brilliance of the FX series. And yet, it's perfectly serviceable for a broadcast network project as well. In fact, the casting is pretty stellar and helps improve some of the more soap opera moments. The writing is very pointed in a sensationalized take on this story. It can be very over-the-top and broad with its sweeping characteristics and plot developments. That can saddle even some of the best actors with questionable material. However, Edie Falco tops this story as defense attorney Leslie Abramson, who represented the Menendez brothers in their trial. She plays things very seriously but it absolutely works in the context of the show. She is able to bring a sense of determination and sympathy to her character. The audience is allowed to understand her and every decision she makes regarding this case. Newcomers Gus Halper and Miles Gaston Villanueva have a lot of material to work with too as the infamous brothers. Despite being the least recognizable faces in this ensemble, they do hold the screen well. But there's only so much they can do to make up for erratic writing. But again, this ensemble is just riddled with great talent - including Josh Charles, Elizabeth Reaser, Sam Jaeger, Constance Marie, Heather Graham, Chris Bauer, etc. The cast basically makes this show compelling to watch.

The problems in these early episodes come from some of the creative decisions made by the writers. René Balcer is the showrunner for this season. He was a part of the team on Law & Order that ultimately won an Emmy for Best Drama Series. He was responsible for that. So, he has a long history with this franchise and with Dick Wolf. Wolf's influence seems to be all over this story as well. He has beliefs about this case and isn't afraid to share them. At the show's panel for the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, he wasn't afraid to share his opinion that the Menendez brothers were unjustly targeted by malicious prosecution and deserved to be sentenced for first-degree manslaughter instead of murder with a life sentence. Those opinions can definitely be felt within the story. As such, the story itself loses a layer of complication and complexity to it. It wants to present things in an easily digestible way for the audience. It's removing all sense of ambiguity to the proceedings. It's making sweeping proclamations about this case. It is saying definitively that the brothers killed their parents, they suffered a lifetime of abuse from their father and they were targeted by the prosecution that desperately needed a high-profile win. These story elements informed the writers as they were crafting the dramatization of these events. But it's the show removing the decision-making process from the viewers. It's not leaving it up to us to decide whether or not the actions revolving around this case were right.

These opening two episodes move briskly enough though. They don't get caught up in any weird or problematic plot developments for too long. Yes, there are definitely some silly twists and turns to this story that are played in the broadest way possible. But they serve their purpose quickly and the show is able to move on to the next plot point. That briskness is much appreciated. The second episode is actually quite effective because it begins to produce some sense of forward momentum. Yes, the stakes of this story are very manipulative. The show wants the audience to get inside the minds of the killers and defense team instead of the detectives and prosecutors. That's another significant change from the long-lasting Law & Order format. It's a key breakaway in this case because it wants the audience to see this story the way that Wolf and Balcer see it. That's a somewhat limiting worldview but they aren't wrong to be presenting it in such a way. It makes it seem like it's a Law & Order show in name only. But the famous "dun dun" is still employed sparingly. So, it has enough of the parts to make it work. Plus, this cast is pretty appealing to watch. And perhaps once the show gets into the details of the actual trials, things will become more enticing to watch. Right now, it's just a lot of annoying plot setup that is way too obvious and manipulative to be all that effective.