Law & Order, in some form, has been on the air since 1990. There were 20 seasons of the original series, we're on the 19th season of Law & Order: SVU, there were 10 seasons of Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and there was a season each of Law & Order: L.A. and Law & Order: Trial By Jury. The franchise fed the boom in police procedurals and made "chung-chung" (or "donk-donk" or whatever you choose to call its signature sound) as familiar as NBC's own "N-B-C" chimes.
There's a tenuous connection between the franchise and the idea of "true crime." While L&O is well-known for its tendency to rip premises from the headlines, as they say, it fictionalizes them — not only in details, but often in ultimate resolution. But right now, one of the crime trends in television is ... well, true true crime, in which a case is told either in a documentary (like Netflix's Making A Murderer) or in a drama (like FX's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.) It makes sense that Law & Order franchise poobah Dick Wolf would try it, as happens in Law & Order True Crime — The Menendez Murders, an eight-episode series that kicks off Tuesday night on NBC.
Erik and Lyle Menendez were convicted in 1996 of the murders of their parents and given life sentences, which they're still serving. The convictions came in their second trial — the first, covered heavily by Court TV, ended in separate hung juries for both brothers. While they acknowledged shooting their parents, their lawyers, including Erik's lead lawyer Leslie Abramson, played by Edie Falco in the new series, argued that they acted out of fear after being abused for many years. The first juries were divided on that defense; the single jury in the second trial rejected it. Wolf has been public about the fact that he believes the brothers should have received a lighter sentence and should not have been convicted of first-degree murder for a variety of reasons. You should expect the series to proceed from that point of view.
NBC made the first two episodes available to critics, and in those first episodes, L&O TC — TMM (whew) struggles to do anything new. The obvious precursor is The People vs. O.J. Simpson, right down to the regrettable wigs and the performances that sometimes border on dark comedy, like Josh Charles as Dr. Jerome Oziel, the therapist to whom the brothers confessed. Much like John Travolta's take on Robert Shapiro flirted with caricature, so does Charles' sleazy Oziel. And much like Sarah Paulson's tightly curly Marcia Clark hair was one of the central images of the O.J. series, so is Edie Falco's tightly curly Leslie Abramson hair.
But beyond those surface similarities, the challenge for the Menendez series, at least in the early going, is that if there's much to say beyond the story itself, the show doesn't get to it. It's pure dramatization, resting entirely on audience interest in this case alone. And its conceptions of the characters are disappointingly flat, unlike the pictures that were drawn, particularly of Clark and Christopher Darden, in the FX series. Abramson is a dedicated, no-nonsense lawyer who helps clients, Erik Menendez is a scared kid, and Lyle Menendez is a chilly and manipulative enigma. You have to really care about this case, these particular people, from 25 years ago, or it won't speak to you. What made the O.J. Simpson series (both dramatic and documentary) work was that the case, which seemed to have been done to death, could still be tired to broader questions about race, celebrity, and the legal system, as well as to great character stories like the treatment of Darden.
The irony is that if Law & Order had stuck with its formula, presenting a bit-by-bit picture of investigation and prosecution, done with quick scenes with little transition (that's why the chung-chung and the place-and-time cards exist), it might have been interesting. An actual Menendez procedural might have worked. But as it is, this is a serialized version of the TV movies of the 1980s and 1990s based on the books of true crime writer Ann Rule, only with a case that's such well-covered ground that it feels, so far, unnecessary. This show isn't actually focused on investigation and prosecution, which is what the franchise is good at: well-paced action, satisfying rhythms, and so forth. Instead, while they halfheartedly include the chung-chungs and the scene cards, there's a lot of gloppy, gauzy flashback material and perpetually ominous music.
Law & Order True Crime sounds like a good show, really — that's just not quite what this is.