Affluenza is an opportune subject in 2017. So is the impact of fiercely controlling fathers on unexceptional and needy sons, who seek to fill their gaping emotional voids with shiny objects. Law &Order True Crime, the latest spinoff of the steadfast NBC procedural franchise, could be the perfect union of subject and subtext: a reexamination of a case that shocked America in 1989, when the Menendez brothers, two wealthy Beverly Hills teenagers, murdered their parents in what seemed like a transparent bid to get their hands on the family millions.
For years, the producer Dick Wolf has ripped his stories from the headlines. True Crime, then, is a natural extension of a brand that’s long muddied the waters between art and life. So why is it so dull? So staid? So resistant to drawing any deeper meaning from a murder that seems directly related to the city, and the culture, it came from? With a subject as lurid and timely as this one, why not throw out the procedural rulebook and have some fun?
The first installment of the eight-episode drama, which airs Tuesday night on NBC, is murder-reenactment-by-the-numbers, complete with black-and-white flashbacks, an oppressively ominous and omnipresent score, and a script that continually feels the need to point out the patently obvious. (“Guns, pills, and money,” Detective Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) ponders, walking through the crime scene, somehow resisting the urge to stroke his mustache. “What could go wrong here?”) The opening scene shows a man and his wife being brutally murdered with shotguns in their home; a hysterical call to emergency services turns out to have been made by their sons. It’s immediately obvious that Lyle Menendez (Miles Gaston Villanueva) is a conniving piece of work, that his younger brother, Erik (Gus Halper), is wobblier than Jell-O, and that their impulse to go on an Armani-and-Rolex shopping spree as soon as their aunt hands over a credit card for sundries points to a suspicious lack of grief for their newly dead parents.
As the detectives investigating the case proceed to ferret out the particulars (sometimes literally—one of the weirder details of the Menendez murders was that the family kept ferrets as pets), the show introduces its cast of supporting characters. Like Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, True Crime invested in its ensemble cast, hiring Edie Falco as Leslie Abramson, Erik’s defense attorney; Anthony Edwards as the presiding judge in the trial, Stanley Weisberg; Josh Charles as Dr. Jerome Oziel, Erik’s psychiatrist; and Heather Graham as Judalon Smyth, Oziel’s mistress, whose eavesdropping in his office becomes a pivotal moment for the prosecution.
Unlike American Crime Story, though, True Crime doesn’t give its cast a lot to work with. The first two episodes made available to critics are heavy on extraneous information (Abramson wins her clients’ trust by figuring out their snack preferences) and light on substantive plotting. Too often, the series seems to assume that viewers remember all the crucial details from the case, like the fact that Smyth was reportedly lingering in Oziel’s office when she overheard the two brothers confess. Oddly, too, in a show about callous parricide, Smyth gets the least sympathetic portrayal—she’s played by Graham as a childlike but deranged stalker who stages suicide attempts to get Oziel’s attention and tells his children that he’s leaving them to marry her.
The biggest failing of True Crime, though, seems to be that it misinterprets what viewers (and listeners) appreciate in the genre. Works like Serial and The Keepers invest audience attention in little-known cases, doing the detective work themselves over the course of the series. American Crime Story, by contrast, led with a case about which everyone knew every detail: It wasn’t interested in what happened so much as why. Relitigating the arrest and trial of one of America’s most famous black athletes, 20 years later, allowed Murphy to explore the blind spots and cultural divides that few could see clearly at the time.
There’s little of that historical unburdening here, and it feels like a real missed opportunity. Writing about the Menendez trial in 1993 for Vanity Fair, Dominick Dunne juxtaposed his thoughts on the case with random notes on Hollywood at the time: Heidi Fleiss’s arrest, the accusations of child molestation against Michael Jackson, scenes from the Chateau Marmont, the theft of $12 million in jewels from a real-estate magnate. The patchwork of sleaze offered a portrait of a city mired in its own privilege, its worst impulses enabled and excesses unchecked. How do kids grow up in such a culture? What did the “greed is good” mantra of the 1980s do to teenagers who already had so much?
There are moments when True Crime almost gets there—when Lyle, staring at his reflection in the mirror while he rehearses a comical sales pitch for his chain of hot-wing restaurants, looks eerily like a young Patrick Bateman. And the show details the pressure Jose Menendez, a Cuban immigrant, put on his children to succeed, and the verbal abuse he inflicted on them. But for the most part, Lyle and Erik’s crime seems like a fait accompli, something that happened in history and is now playing out again for viewers’ entertainment. That we might want to know more about what went wrong—and why crimes like this leave such a permanent mark on the national curiosity—apparently just isn’t part of the Law & Order formula.