Tuesday, October 17, 2017

REVIEW: 'Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders' - Leslie Begins to Build Her Case in 'Episode 4'

NBC's Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders - Episode 1.04 "Episode 4"

Erik and Lyle begin to divulge details of the psychological and sexual abuse they suffered at the hands of their parents. A lack of tangible evidence leaves Leslie and Jill to wonder how they will convince a jury that the boys truly feared for their lives. Leslie makes a case for Dr. Oziel's tapes to be thrown out of court. Pam faces increased pressure from the District Attorney's office.

Last week's episode of The Menendez Murders ended with the bombshell revelation that Erik and Lyle were sexually abused by their parents. It was an episode-ending twist that was bound to completely change the case moving forward. This show can still be very familiar and traditional with its structuring. It builds to commercial breaks. Everything is punctuated with a very dramatic and serious score. Characters are crying all of the time to highlight just how emotional all of this has been on them. And yet, it's hard to have a sense of how any specific action has an impact on this case because the show is trying to include as many details as possible. It's throwing everything into this story. It's all factual information informed by the creative team's opinion of this case. That perception continues to offer a slanted perspective on this story. But when every single moment of this show is defined by a huge and shocking revelation, then those moments are less powerful. If everything is important, then nothing is. It was just scandalous detail after scandalous detail. But there was no sense of how it was all building to a more complicated story for Erik, Lyle and their defense. It was easy to get lost amongst all of the chaos. As such, it made it difficult to think that the sexual abuse reveal would ultimately hold significantly more bearing on the narrative. The show perceives that it's a shocking twist that will change everything. And in execution, it does do that. It's still such a slog to get through as well because the show is getting hung up on all of the very small, procedural details of this case.

And so, "Episode 4" still feels like an hour where everything is being thrown at the wall so the audience can see just how taxing and widespread this entire investigation and trial were. It's one way to tell the story. Of course, it only sets up an expectation of surface-level observations on the narrative. Right now, the episode has the immediate mission of Leslie and Jill trying to find the evidence that can support Erik and Lyle's story of abuse in court. They have this information from Erik that would potentially justify why he and his brother killed their parents. He shared with the new therapist that he was molested starting at age 6. That's such a devastating reveal. And now, Leslie and Jill are trying to make sense of it. They and their investigators need to figure out if this is potentially a good avenue for them to explore in the hopes of creating a reasonable defense. That seems like it should be a strong focus for an episode. It includes Erik and Lyle needing to open up about the abuse they endured even though they haven't shared it with anyone else in the world. It's reasonable to expect that the world didn't stop moving while Leslie and Jill were doing this. But the details that creep in elsewhere in this story as depicted in this episode are very lackluster and seem random.

So, it's important that Ira Reiner's judgment as District Attorney is compromised because he is running for re-election. It's important that Gil Garcetti replaces him in the office but basically has the same mentality regarding this case and why the Menendez brothers need to face the death penalty. It's important that Pam doesn't want to cut a deal with Leslie and Jill. It's also important that she gets married offscreen. It's important that Leslie and Jill continue to appeal the ruling regarding Dr. Oziel's tapes. It's something they fight against and ultimately do get a small victory. But it's still doing potential damage to the jury pool. And then, it's important that Diane Sawyer keeps running specials about this case where she is interested in interviewing everyone who even has a remote connection. There's no sense whatsoever that anyone takes any pause to giving Judalon Smyth a platform to deliver a message when she is so obviously a delusional person. It's then important that Dr. Oziel needs to stand up and refute the claims Judalon has made about him while wanting to sue her for saying that he was the absolute worst at sex. It's a lot to juggle. Again, it all has the appearance of being important. These details should all be adding up to something. But right now, all they do is give the sense that Leslie and Jill keep getting knocked down in this case until Lyle is comfortable sharing his own abuse with them. After that, everything starts going their way again and they can be optimistic about the case they've built.

But then, the show just has a random moment that takes note that this is also the time frame for the infamous Rodney King verdict and subsequent riots. It's important for one elongated scene. But there's absolutely no context for how it will affect the Menendez case. When Leslie becomes aware of it, she doesn't care about the case she has set for the docket. Instead, her only concern is about bringing a child into this world knowing just how dangerous and horrifying it can be. That goes into the overall theme of the episode which is highlighting the abuse of people who never wanted to be parents but were nonetheless. But it's not even a keen observation. It's something happening in the background of all of this. These riots were life-changing events that changed the landscape of the city and the way the District Attorney's office operated. And yet, it's just a blip on the radar for this series. It barely even comments on it at all. That's odd and weird. It puts in the minimum amount of effort as possible to include this important moment in history. It's included without a sense of how it could affect the Menendez brothers. Right now, building a case around their abuse is all that matters. Again, that's a satisfying enough hook for an episode of television. But because the show fills this hour with so many other details, none of them really have the desired impact the show is going for it.

It's this huge and emotional thing that Erik and Lyle sit down with the people they care about and tell them that they killed their parents because of the abuse they've endured over the years. It's a story that not everyone can readily accept. It's not surprising that Aunt Marta continues to be the sole champion for the boys amongst the family. She's standing by them when no one else is. There's no big reason for that though. Her son can later offer testimony that can support the claims that Erik and Lyle make about their parents. But that's just a little too inconsequential. It's important for Leslie and her team to be interviewing potential witnesses. They need people who can speak about this abuse. It's just more difficult to do because this family kept things from private. They label them as their "sick secrets." As such, no one truly knows what happened in that house for all of those years. The show is presenting Erik and Lyle as reliable people. Their story should be believed. It's enough to convince Leslie in the end that they have a solid case. Some uncertainty and moral ambiguity in the story would be more compelling though. A sense that all of this information isn't enough. Right now, it seems like the show is setting up the expectation that Leslie has done everything in order to ensure victory in this case. That just sets up the inevitable expectation that she'll fail. Of course, the audience already knows that. So, the narrative is robbing itself of some dramatic tension and irony without really offering a whole lot in its place.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 4" was written by Diana Son and directed by Holly Dale.
  • There's also a subplot where Leslie gets into contact with her father again and then goes to see him in Pennsylvania. And yet, why does this story exist at all? It continues to showcase that she has a life outside of the case. But it all seems so completely random. It pops up unexpectedly. But it informs the audience of nothing new with the character. Nor does it change her perception of the world.
  • Erik and Lyle's girlfriends have been nonexistent as characters. They are a part of the narrative in that they visit the two of them in prison. And now, they are told the truth about the men they've chosen to love at the same time. Lyle's girlfriend immediately runs away by the prospect while it takes a bit longer for the reality to set in with Erik's. But again, what's the point?
  • Is it a little too convenient that Erik and Lyle remain so close in prison? They have cells right next to each other. Whenever they get visitors, they are the only people in the room. It does seem like they are getting special treatment. Even they get to watch the Diane Sawyer special. It's weird especially since they are sharing information with the therapist at different paces.
  • Halfway through the season and I still have a major problem with the use of flashbacks. First of all, the black-and-white quality is just so manipulative and forced. Furthermore, it's the show cementing all of this as fact instead of living in the ambiguity of the story. If you doubt that, then look at the fact that last week's episode included a scene where the cousin saw Jose taking the boys into his bedroom. That then gets paid off in this one. So, the audience is seeing things that the characters aren't.
  • Everyone is talking about how Lyle must have been abused by his father as well. He's just not comfortable sharing it with anyone. He's still wearing his armor and protecting himself. But as all the evidence mounts that Leslie can use in this case, it makes it seem like an afterthought once Lyle does come forward with his story to the therapist.
  • Of course, it's fascinating that Leslie and Jill are planning a defense that revolves around imperfect self-defense when the police are struggling to build a solid case that the brothers did the crime at all. Most of their case revolves around the tapes. They are damning but there was no physical evidence left behind at all.