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Law & Order has jumped on the true crime miniseries bandwagon

Duncan Greive watches Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders, a miniseries following the true 90s case that gripped the world and caused a media circus. 

You know the true crimewave is getting out of hand when Law & Order is getting in on the game. The franchise, of which True Crime: the Menendez Murders is the sixth branch, has become amongst the most successful in TV history by sticking firmly to fiction.

Actually, that’s not entirely true: the series has long plied pulpy ripped-from-the-headlines cases to its massive audience. But those have always been stripped down and easily resolved, so they can be wrapped in 42 minutes.

True Crime (Thursdays 8.30pm on TVNZ1 or express OnDemand) is different. Its eight episodes focus on a single crime: the murder of Jose and Kitty Menendez, wealthy Beverly Hills residents connected to the entertainment industry. They left behind two grieving post-adolescent sons who rapidly became prime suspects.

The People vs OJ Simpson, last year’s terrifically successful Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story) series, is the model. The ‘90s LA setting; the lurid double murder; the ensemble cast (Edie Falco, Heather Graham and some of the best and most recognisable faces in TV). Lucky for us that the writing, performances and complexity are of a similar level to Murphy’s multi-award winner. If you’re going to shamelessly jack a format, maintaining the quality is the least you can do.

We open on the shotgun blast murders, and the actual 911 call, a chilling setup that, in its grainy footage and dropping right into the action, nods more to SVU than what’s to come.

Despite some ropey lines – “guns, pills and money: what could go wrong?” – for the most part that’s a taut and tense thriller. The suspects are Eric, the younger brother and an aspiring tennis pro and Lyle, a student at Yale. Each is young, entitled and handsome; each also having suffered under a harsh and domineering father. There are mob dealings, evidence of an anxiety-ridden and pill-popping mother, the generalised era-specific racist moral panic around “gang bangers” – but the boys scream increasingly loudly as the perpetrators.

The creators chose the case well: the Menendez murders were amongst a string of lurid crimes which gripped America and thus the world in the ‘90s; including Tonya Harding’s assault of Nancy Kerrigan; the JonBenét Ramsey case; and that of OJ Simpson. All have been subject to recent dramas, documentaries or, least successfully, combinations of the two. But the specifics of the Menendez case – the money, the family dynamic, the trials, the strange characters who clustered around them – add up to a richer seam of source material than most.

Eric and Lyle already had a cinematic quality to begin with. Young, handsome, complex and gifted, they also seemed impatient for what they felt was coming to them. Their father was ferocious and controlling, and thus the baubles of wealth were all around, yet not quite within their grasp. In the immediate aftermath of their parents’ death, they splurge on Rolexes and Armani suits, days later there are Porsches and the beginnings of dreams of business empire. While there is no textbook way to grieve, Lyle seemed to barely acknowledge the deaths at all, while Eric is consumed by his conscience.

It’s a quintessential example of money run amok, of the excesses of the American judicial system, of pampered kids and seemingly perfect parents concealing a lot. And despite coming from that factory of lurid crime and punishment, it’s handled with restraint by the Law & Order team. In fact, while coming very deep into its run, this might well be the most impressive feat in the series’ long history, and shows that despite its ubiquity, the true crime well is far from dry.


True Crime: The Menendez Murders airs Thursdays 8.30pm on TVNZ1 or express OnDemand

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