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Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders - Review: “Season Premiere”

"Law & Order True Crime" is the latest in Dick Wolf's franchise, and is also the first that is -- literally -- ripped from the headlines with a true story. "True Crime" chronicles the story of Erik and Lyle Menendez, two brothers who captured nationwide attention for brutally killing their wealthy parents in their Beverly Hills home in August 1989.

From viewing the premiere episode, it’s clear that Law & Order is trying to dip into the success of the recent true crime television market, most notably “The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story,” while adding a bit of dramatic flair that ABC’s now-cancelled “American Crime” did well. Of course,

“The Menendez Murders” has the “Law & Order” signature style elements -- the title cards for each scene to tell viewers where the detectives are and the date and time. And of course, the “dun dun” sound is echoed when scenes are transitioned. Interestingly, those elements disappear about half-way through the premiere episode, almost suggesting that “Law & Order” may be rethinking whether to keep the brand associated with the story.

The premiere’s opening scene begins with a flashback image of José and Kitty Menendez (Carlos Gómez and Lolita Davidovich, respectively) being gunned down by someone holding a large shotgun. It then shifts to the image of Det. Les Zoeller (Sam Yaeger) driving to the Menendez’s Beverly Hills home on August 21, 1989, against the voices on the 911 call placed by the hysterical Erik Menendez (Gus Halper).

As Det. Zoeller examines the blood-splattered crime scene with his partner, Det.Tom Linehan (Cliff Chamberlain), 18-year-old Erik and his 21-year-old brother, Joseph “Lyle” (Miles Gaston Villanueva), are being questioned by the police. Lyle shares about his mother’s depression and suicidal tendencies, and describes his father’s work.

The brothers are shown spending their parents’ money, purchasing expensive Armani suits for the funeral, as well as gold and diamond-plated watches and money clips. We also witness Lyle’s lack of emotion, and an extremely emotionally Erik.

The episode continues with the two detectives questioning José’s business associates at Live Entertainment, as well as family members and friends. The detectives grow increasingly suspicious of the Menendez brothers when they find out José was rewriting his will to disinherit his sons, and after learning about a screenplay Erik and his high school friend wrote about a boy who killed his father and inherited millions of dollars.

We are also introduced to Leslie Abramson (Edie Falco) who later becomes Erik’s defense attorney. Leslie is shown in her kitchen watching the Menendez murder coverage, spotting the brothers, and confidentially declaring, “Those boys did it.” Erik must have sensed Abramson’s prediction because the end of the episode show the brother back in his parent’s house having a panic attack while viewing the sanitized crime scene.

“Law & Order True Crime” is doing its best to tell this famous tale using an impressive cast. Josh Charles appears as the Menendez family psychiatrist. Television veteran Anthony Edwards appears as a judge, and Heather Graham is Charles’ mistress.

The verdict is still out whether audiences will embrace this new series in the “Law & Order” franchise. The nature of true crime is we all know how the story ends. The mystery lies within whether viewers will stick around to see how the story itself unfolds.