Tuesday, October 24, 2017

REVIEW: 'Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders' - Erik and Lyle's Trial Begins in 'Episode 5'

NBC's Law & Order: True Crime - The Menendez Murders - Episode 1.05 "Episode 5"

Judge Weisberg grants a petition allowing the court proceedings to be broadcast on television. When Dr. Oziel takes the stand, his questionable ethics and motives threaten to destroy his credibility. The defense faces an uphill battle in getting Judge Weisberg to understand the relevance of Lyle and Erik's complicated upbringing. Leslie struggles with personal demons while she and her husband also move forward in the adoption process.

The trial of Lyle and Erik Menendez begins in "Episode 5." The season is past its halfway point and it still feels like there is so much of this story that is left to tell. It makes me question just how much of this story the creative team is actually trying to tell. It makes me suspect if eight episodes is the right length for this story. Right now, it seems like the early episodes were trying to cram as much into them as possible with the various antics going on before the trial. And now, the second half of the season begins with the trial. But the perception of this story is skewed because the audience is aware of the broad strokes of this case. And yet, the show is setting up expectations that it is possibly trying to rewrite history and come up with a different ending to this infamous story. It's weird. The storytelling right now is very lopsided. It's highlighting the uphill battle Leslie and Jill are on in order to present their case. However, everything in the actual story is told from their perspective. When the witnesses take the stand, Leslie and Jill are largely the ones doing the questioning not Pam and her associate. It's weird. It's a very personal storytelling decision. It's showing the injustices of this trial and how hard the two of them have to work in order to represent the brothers. But it's also setting up the expectation that they are dealing with all of these issues only to emerge triumphant in the end because of their cunning abilities as lawyers. That's the expectation the show is setting up. It's curious as to why it's doing all of that effort. It's trying to live in the moment. But the previous episodes have already offered a slanted perspective on this case. Every action is deliberate. But the way everything is being told is slightly confusing in the end which is very problematic throughout this episode.

"Episode 5" is all about the legal antics as well. It's the show moving into the "order" part of its title. The Menendez Murders hasn't followed the traditional path of a Law & Order show. The other entries in this franchise focus on the investigators and prosecutors. This story is being told from the defense team. The investigators and prosecutors are still important components of this story. They are played by recognizable actors. But the focus is still very much on the defense of the brothers and the struggles Leslie and Jill have encountered along the way. The action centers on how they are questioning the witnesses that the prosecution has for their case. The prosecution goes first in trials to lay out the evidence against the defendants. But this episode isn't told from Pam's perspective. It's not about her presenting her case against the brothers. Instead, it's basically just reaffirming information the audience already knows. It highlights how the system is trying to corrupt this trial in order to get a public victory after the public outcry following the Rodney King case. That's affecting everyone's judgment. But again, that's just a quality in the subtext of this story. The show isn't digging deeper to understand the motivations behind what Pam and Judge Stan Weisberg are doing. It's all framed in the context of how it affects Leslie and Jill's case. That's not inherently bad because Leslie is the only character of genuine interest in the show because of Edie Falco. But it continues the show's trend of only going surface deep with its observations about this story.

The audience is able to infer that Judge Weisberg is biased against the brothers because of something he hears on the radio. It's in that moment that it becomes clear to the audience that he was the judge that determined where the Rodney King trial would take place. Many people believe that to be a crucial decision that impacted the outcome of that case. So, the audience has to accept that Weisberg's actions are determined by him to change public opinion about himself. He sees the riots that have occurred and he believes people blame him for them. But that's all just information that is put out there for the audience in an instant. We just have to readily accept it. The writing and Anthony Edwards do nothing to really showcase the depths and fears of this man. He's on the record as a judge. His actions there determine who he is and the role he played in this case. Perhaps that's all that needs to be said. It's important to establish this backstory. It's just done in an incredibly clunky way. But he allows cameras into his courtroom to continue the visibility of this trial in the public because of how popular the story has become over the years. And more importantly, he cuts off Leslie and Jill's line of questioning because he wants the easy outcome of Erik and Lyle being found guilty because that's what the public believes. He believes that if he doesn't produce that outcome in the end then there will only be more cause to hate him and his judgments on the bench.

But the hour spends most of its time rehashing some of the details that have already been an important part of this story. The prosecution presents their case which means that Erik and Lyle's former friends and business associates take the stand as well as Dr. Oziel. The show has already spent a lot of time with these characters and their perception of this case. It's true to life that both sides would interview these witnesses and use those details to form their case. Now, they need to have those conversations on the record in order to convince a jury about the innocence or guilt of the brothers. It just feels very repetitive. There is a moment of excitement when one witness commits perjury and Leslie needs to use the media in order to prove it. All of this mostly just highlights how skilled Leslie and Pam are at their jobs. They are working so much harder than the prosecutors and investigations. Pam is just doing the bare minimum. She doesn't seem like she's working hard because the defense isn't disputing the claim that Erik and Lyle killed their parents. The prosecution really hasn't presented a lot of hard evidence for the crime. They are just fortunate that the brothers have already confessed - which is helped by Dr. Oziel even though his judgment and qualifications deserve to be questioned. Meanwhile, Detective Zoeller is coaching the young witnesses and treating them to a night out on the town. It definitely feels like coercion. The show is being pretty blatant with that. It's these maneuvers that make it seem like the case is a foregone conclusion for conviction. That's why Leslie and Jill are working so hard to fight against the public perception of this case.

In the end, the show does seem to have some understanding about where all of this is bound to go. Leslie and Jill are fighting an uphill battle. They have the hope that the public will be convinced that the brothers don't deserve to die for killing their parents because they came up in a world where they never felt safe in their own home. Every detail that Leslie and Jill hear changes their perception of the case. And now, they are fighting to get those details in. They know the power that comes from these allegations of sexual abuse. They understand the crippling effect it had on the brothers. Even in their cross-examinations, they are already pivoting to that defense. But it's still a strategy Judge Weisberg could dismiss at any time. He's given the defense some leeway. But it's not amounting to much at the moment. He gives Leslie and Jill the opportunity to explore this defense. When they are actually presenting their case though, he barely has any time for it. He just sees it as a waste of time for the court. He's not taking it seriously. That's the slant the show is purposefully showing as well. It's highlighting how justice is failing the brothers because the system is working against them. The world has already made up their minds about them. People are approaching Leslie in public questioning how she could represent monsters like them. She knows the full story and believes she has a solid case. The system just doesn't want to hear it. She's determined to make everyone understand why the brothers did what they did. But it's still played as a hopeful moment at the end of this episode. It's a way for the audience to feel like there is a chance that things won't ultimately end tragically for the brothers. And that basically just feels like false hope that offers a sensationalized take on this story without truly digging into the complexity of the situation. It's a blend the show is consistent with even though it's not the most fascinating way to tell this story.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Episode 5" was written by René Balcer and directed by Fred Berner.
  • This isn't a particularly busy episode for Erik or Lyle. They are basically just along for the ride with this trial. They don't create a scene. They only appear because they need to be at the defense table. But Leslie and Jill are doing all the work. They just need to hold strong. Leslie and Jill are providing the motherly support they've never gotten before. That just plays out in minor details though.
  • Leslie is also juggling a lot in addition to the trial. Her hopes of adopting a baby are coming closer to fruition. She and her husband are meeting with a woman who happens to be six months pregnant. Apparently, that meeting goes well because they get sonogram pictures later on and are preparing for the arrival of their new son.
  • Moreover, Leslie's mother also dies. Leslie has talked a great deal about having an estranged relationship with her mother because they don't agree on anything. She was made stronger because of how her mother raised her. But she's incapable of saying goodbye to her because of the trial. That's not a huge personal loss to her. But it's something that is also going on during this time.
  • Judge Weisberg calls attention to the fact that there are two juries in the courtroom. One will be deciding the fact of Erik and the other for Lyle. They have separate juries. They will move in and out of the courtroom based on which testimony is relevant to which case. It seems logistically difficult but the show never really depicts any of that.
  • Instead, the show is much more interested with the camera in the courtroom. Judge Weisberg agreed to it because he believed it to be a stationary camera that wouldn't distract from the proceedings. He didn't want a full crew in there documenting everything. But it's actually a camera that can move around and zoom in. The noice it makes is distracting and reminds everyone of the global stage this trial is operating on.