Based on the first episode, the eight-part “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” is still “Law & Order,” and one’s feelings about it may depend on one’s feelings about the entire brand. Do you dig the corny one-liners? The grave nods between detectives? The plot twists you can set your watch to? The heedless confessions under pressure? (The overacting?) The multipart format promises more than that, but the pilot promises exactly that, which I’ll insist could be a good thing for fans. (Imagine my relief when, after inexplicably missing during several opportunities, that first “bong! bong!” to cue the scene-change finally sounded, more than 12 minutes in.) For non-fans, it’s too early to tell.
Luckily, this series has one of the most telegenic crimes in living memory as its source: Jose, a Hollywood executive, and Kitty, his miserable and pill-addled wife, are classic Fall of Camelot. The murders have one of the most glamorous addresses in the country. The victims are nouveaux riches, whose tragic end provides a convenient moral tale for the vieux riches who snub them and the not-at-all riches who love to see powerful people undone. Parricide writes its own Shakespearean arc, and even the killers, Lyle and Erik, are handsome, tan and swaggering. (As the older brother and Princeton flunky, Lyle, the actor Miles Gaston Villanueva is an excellent vessel, as steely of demeanor as he is of jaw; Gus Halper plays Erik with the wild eyes appropriate to a boy who’s perhaps gone along with his older brother’s schemes one too many times.)
Then there is the violence itself, whose brutality alone made it impossible for a culture weaned on cinematic violence not to rubberneck, particularly in a case of parricide. The opening sequence, filmed in a grainy, noirish chiaroscuro, underscores that brutality: The first image we see is one of the pump shotguns, and those shotguns pumped a total of 15 shots into Jose’s and Kitty’s bodies at point-blank range as the two of them ate ice cream amid the glow of the family-room TV. Made-for-TV renditions of the aftermath can’t help but soften the reality. The bodies here are bloody but whole; written accounts say it was one of the goriest crimes investigators had ever seen.
The implications are clear. The Menendez boys push the theory that this was a mob hit; Jose’s business partners, it seems, had a background in porn, which Jose is said to have fought. But as Detectives Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) and Tom Linehan (Cliff Chamberlain) observe, a mob hit would have been quick — just a bullet each and then out the door. Whoever committed these murders not only used a shotgun, he (or they) took the time to reload, pressing the barrel to Kitty’s face, possibly after she was already dead.
What’s more, the killer possessed the icy self-possession to gather and remove all 15 spent shells. The notoriously scrappy defense lawyer Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco), whom we first meet as she’s winning a separate but similar case, calls it straight away: “Those boys did it,” she tells her husband over breakfast, adding later to her colleagues: “There’s only one thing that can generate that level of anger. Family.”
By episode’s end, the evidence against Lyle and Erik is already mounting. The boys, we learn, had been on their father’s naughty list since being caught pulling burglaries in their former community of Calabasas, Calif. There is talk of a revised will that would have removed Lyle and Erik as Jose’s beneficiaries, but detectives discover that Lyle hired a computer expert to clear his father’s hard drive just before the murders. And now Lyle is out buying Porsches, expensive suits and Rolexes; he’s also pursuing plans to grow a restaurant franchise — all of which he insists his father would have wanted, but none of which insist he feels grief over said father’s murder.
Meanwhile, Erik is in a constant state of freak-out, terrorized in tennis whites by nightmares and bloody visions. That’s hardly evidence to convict: Who wouldn’t be traumatized by discovering his parents murdered (except maybe Lyle)? But there are indications that Erik was more than just along for the ride. As the detectives learn, Erik and his friend Craig Cignarelli (Zach Tinker) wrote a screenplay two years before about a boy who kills his parents and inherits millions.
Seems there’s a bit of old Dimtri Karamozov in him, after all. “You know, a lot of people looked up to Erik and me in high school,” Craig tells the detectives with a demonic grin. “We had this aura of superiority.”
Cue the grave nods.
Erik, too, has his new Rolex, just as dad would have wanted (with diamonds in the dial, no less). No matter that Lyle talked him into it — the watch looks good. As Craig says when asked if he thinks Erik pulled the trigger: “I mean, the script was his idea. So … ”
• The thing about zeitgeist is it doesn’t last, and for all the pleasures it promises, the pilot bears many signs of a rush to cash in. The cheap black-and-white flashbacks are particularly bad, reminding me (speaking of the ’90s) of the dramatizations on “America’s Most Wanted.” I’m flashback-wary in general — it’s almost always a lazy device — but these were bad.
• Chris Bauer, who plays Abramson’s husband, is having quite a run. Fans of “The Wire” will remember him as the union boss Frank Sobotka. He’s also on “The Deuce” and played a detective on “The People v. O.J.” The more Chris Bauer in my life, the better.
• From my research, I’m aware of the importance of Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles) to this narrative. I was not aware his nickname was Dr. Daddy. Keep an eye on that guy.
• Some of the first true-crime writing I ever read was by Dominick Dunne for Vanity Fair in the ’90s. He made a delightful (if fairly negligible) appearance in “The People v. O.J.,” as played by Robert Morse (Bert Cooper of “Mad Men”). Dunne wrote about the Menendez murders, too: Any chance he’ll show up again?
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