Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, reviewed.

Edie Falco as Leslie Abramson in Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Brothers.

NBCUniversal Media

Not all true crime is created equal. This is the lesson of Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, NBC’s attempt at a splashy anthology series akin to FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. (It even has its own great actress, Edie Falco, playing a tough lawyer with a memorable perm.) Superficially, the case of the Menendez brothers—Lyle and Erik, two rich young men who brutally murdered their parents—resembles the O.J. trial: an early 1990s California milieu, bloody crimes committed by handsome men, an inventive defense strategy, and, most relevantly, a media frenzy. Kitty and José Menendez were murdered in 1989, but their sons did not go to trial until 1993. In the interim, Court TV came into existence, and the Menendez case was the network’s first hit, a real-life daytime drama that explains the crime’s lasting imprint in our collective memory better than the crime itself.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.

The Menendez brothers, simply and awfully, made for great television, when great is defined as that which we are paralytically helpless to turn away from. The Menendez case was lurid and grotesquely theatrical. The trial was delayed for three years while lawyers fought about the admissibility of the brothers’ confession to a psychologist. When the prosecution won the right to play the tapes for the jury, the defense team, led by Leslie Abramson, argued that the brothers had committed the murders in self-defense, after years of sexual abuse. That abuse was testified to in wrenching, tearful detail while the crime itself was discussed in blunt particulars. “When you put the shotgun up against her left cheek and pulled the trigger, did you love your mother?” Abramson asked Erik during the trial. “Yes,” he replied.

The Menendez Murders approaches this material in familiar Law & Order fashion, down to the typeface and the sparing “dun dun.” The first two episodes, all that was made available to critics, focus largely on the “law” side of the ampersand, following the police as their suspicions circle the brothers. In the aftermath of the murders, the psyche of 18-year-old Erik (Gus Halper) begins to fray, and 21-year-old Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) puts nearly $1 million on the family credit card. Foreshadowing the “order”…

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