Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres September 26, 10pm on NBC.
Ripped from the headlines of 1989, Law & Order True Crime: The Menéndez Murders brings a more cinematic dramatization to the decades old franchise. Unlike its predecessors, however, True Crime doesn’t try to obscure its source material. Similar to American Crime Story, this is straight up the story of the real life murder of José and Kitty Menéndez at the hands of their adult sons Lyle and Erik. While the show strays from the tried-and-true formula of the past, it still delivers something that fans of the franchise and newcomers alike can enjoy.
Without spoiling too many details about a nearly thirty-year-old murder, the show begins with Lyle and Erik shooting their parents in their family home. Much like Criminal Intent, this show isn’t so much a mystery of whodunit, but rather a mystery of why did they do it? Upon seeing the initial newscast announcing the murder of the Menéndezes, their eventual defense attorney Leslie Abramson—played to perfection by Edie Falco— even announces to her husband that the sons did it. It’s the show’s way of establishing that the who isn’t as important as the why, which makes sense given that the show’s showrunner, René Balcer, was also the initial showrunner for Criminal Intent.
By turning the mystery into an examination of the motive, the show is better able to explore morality itself. On the one hand, the brothers murdered their parents because their father was planning on removing them from the will. Is murdering someone for several million dollars just? Maybe not. On the other, the family wasn’t what it seemed. José was abusive toward his kids, constantly making Lyle feel like a failure while also doubting Erik’s masculinity. Furthermore, he regularly cheated on their mother, who in turn developed a severe depression and drinking problem. Is murdering an abuser just? Maybe so.
Moral grey areas pervade the show beyond just the family. As mentioned before, Abramson knows the boys are guilty before she even takes on the case. While trying to help somebody get away with murder is morally reprehensible, she takes on the case to ensure that the boys get a fair and just trial. Erik’s therapist is in an even deeper moral conundrum. He knows Erik and Lyle did it, but must maintain his patient confidentiality agreement. On the other hand, they did threaten him and his family. When his mistress finds out, he then threatens her. By showing the complex moral issues surrounding the various characters, the series shows just how human everybody is, even if they are murderers.
This Law & Order may be different, but it’s the differences that truly make this new show worthwhile. (And don’t worry, the chung, chung sound is still there.)