When NBC first announced a "true-crime" installment of its unkillable Law & Order franchise, the only surprising thing was how long it took for this to happen. Sure, you can argue that Law & Order: SVU (the surviving spinoff, even outlasting the original) has one foot in the true-crime waters, ripping stories from the headlines and putting a fictionalized spin on it with notable guest stars attached. But Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders is the franchise's first official foray into the true-crime genre, coming even after the recent boom in the genre.
However, as we learned during today's panel at the Television Critics Association, Menendez Murders isn't just going to adhere to the basic Law & Order formula by attaching itself to an existing franchise with a built-in fan base that has interest in the subject matter. Instead, Menendez Murders will be an extended take; as executive producer/creator Dick Wolf said, this is "a show that has an agenda." It helps that instead of introducing, investigating, solving, and convicting one crime within a single hour, Menendez Murders has eight hours to go deep into the Menendez trial—including everyone involved, such as attorney Leslie Abramson (played by Edie Falco). "She was really about doing a good job and getting the best defense for her client," said Falco. "Her job came first. Justice was really what this was about for her."
During the eight episodes, Menendez Murders will explore aspects of the case that weren't as highly publicized, loading viewers with in-depth information about the 1989 murder and later trial, based on heavy research. Young actor Gus Halper, who plays Erik Menendez, said the first he heard of the trial during his audition. (They didn't interview the brothers for the show.)
But it's the agenda that Wolf, and executive producer/showrunner Rene Balcer, kept coming back to. Upon watching the show, Wolf said he thinks viewers will realize that, while the brothers committed the murders, that there's a lot more at play to the case, too. As Wolf noted, "They probably should have been out eight or ten years ago and should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter," rather than first-degree murder.
Menendez Murders will provide these details, including the alleged molestation the brothers suffered (one incident occurred just two weeks before the murder). Citing the publicized losses of both the Rodney King and OJ Simpson trials, Balcer noted that the show will also tackle "the implicit political collusion between the judge and the district's attorney's office in the second trial." It's clear that the show has high aims—it will be hard not to compare it to The People v. OJ Simpson—but Wolf has an impressive record with crime television, and this might be the reinvigoration the Law & Order franchise needs.
Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders premieres September 26 on NBC.