Not exactly bold in going where “American Crime Story” went before, NBC plunges into dramatizing true crime under the “Law & Order” banner. Despite the me-too-ism of it all, the result is a slick, impressively cast trip down memory lane, saddled with the unwieldy title “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.”
Borrowing elements from its fictional flagship — down to the on-air graphics and Ka-Chung sound — the series dredges up parent-killing brothers Lyle and Erik Menendez, a sensational 1989 case old enough that their defense attorney, Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), is actually shown buying a newspaper out of a street vending machine.
Still, where the original “Law & Order” speeds up the judicial process — ripped-from-the-headlines investigation, trial, verdict all in an hour — the “True Crime” format has the advantage of slowing it down, fleshing out these characters and some of the more salacious tidbits.
The multiple prongs of the case — from the police investigation to the brothers to their therapist (Josh Charles) and his chatty mistress (Heather Graham) — add layers to this tawdry tale, even before the lads are arrested and Abramson steps in to represent them.
The brutal murder immediately sets off shock waves in tony Beverly Hills, but detective Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) is almost instantly suspicious of the boys, with younger brother Erik (Gus Helper) rushing off to play tennis and Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) quickly embarking on a spending spree after the grisly murders. Moreover, a little digging begins to unearth clues that suggest all was not as idyllic in the Menendez home as outward appearances would suggest.
“Guns, pills and money. What could possibly go wrong here?” Zoeller muses.
Previously turned into a miniseries in the ’90s, the Menendez case represents an artifact from the TV movie’s bad old days. Yet the morphing of that appetite into a more fleshed-out eight-episode limited series offers the possibility of bringing more depth to the characters, as well as nice little flourishes like casting “ER’s” Anthony Edwards as the judge.
In success, of course, NBC and producer Dick Wolf will face the high-class problem of finding another “true crime” worth of similar treatment, as opposed to, say, just an hour of “Dateline.” That’s no small feat, considering that “American Crime Story” and others, including documentarians emboldened by “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” are hungrily sifting through the same grab bag of notorious trials.
For now, though, “The Menendez Murders” earns a favorable verdict — a shrewd choice to inaugurate the latest wrinkle in a well-oiled TV franchise that’s as durable as crime and punishment.
“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” premieres Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. on NBC.