Law & Order TV franchise jumps on true crime bandwagon

Edie Falco stars in Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders as the lawyer of the two men.
Edie Falco stars in Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders as the lawyer of the two men.PHOTO: SONY PICTURES

With his Law & Order television franchise, producer Dick Wolf has created some of the most enduring crime dramas on television.

But even the king of the crime procedural could not resist jumping on the true-crime bandwagon, which has been a hot ticket since the success of the podcast Serial (2014 to present), documentaries such as Making A Murderer (2015) and last year's biggest Emmy-winning drama, The People V O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

Like the latter, Wolf's latest offering revisits a sensational televised trial that gripped and divided America in the 1990s: the 1993 to 1996 murder trials of Lyle and Erik Menendez, two rich young men who were eventually convicted of killing their parents in 1989.

Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders - which airs in Singapore on Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316, StarHub TV Channel 510) - will be the first instalment of a new anthology series.

As with other buzzy true-crime titles in recent years, Wolf hopes to get viewers talking and thinking about an old case in a new light, even though the verdict is well known.

The series will make the controversial argument that the siblings, sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole, did not deserve such a harsh punishment because they were allegedly molested by their parents and the sentencing was politically motivated.

Addressing a gathering of TV critics in Los Angeles recently, Wolf was blunt about the goal of the eight-part miniseries, which stars Emmy winner Edie Falco as the brothers' lawyer, ER's Anthony Edwards as the judge, newcomers Gus Halper and Miles Gaston Villanueva as Erik and Lyle, and The Good Wife's Josh Charles as their psychiatrist.

Wolf says: "This is a show that has an agenda. Your mind is going to receive information that I think will change a lot of people's attitudes.

"The research revealed things none of us knew and that's one of the things that I think is most impactful about the eight hours."

Even though he runs one of the biggest empires in TV, this was a fresh challenge for the 70-year-old, who created the original Law & Order (1990 to 2010), Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (1999 to present) and more recent ongoing procedural dramas such as Chicago Fire (2012 to present), Chicago PD (2014 to present) and Chicago Med (2015 to present).

"This is unique for me, after 27 years of Law & Order. This is taken from the headlines. We've made some great shows ripped from the headlines, but this is on a different level."

Many Americans who followed the case compulsively during the hearings were not aware of the politics going on behind the scenes, says Rene Balcer, the show's executive producer.

Apart from the alleged molestation by the parents, "the other part of the story that is probably not well known is the degree of implicit political collusion between the judge and the district attorney's office… to ensure a conviction. That's one new facet to the case the series highlights," he explains.

After losing both the 1992 Rodney King police-brutality case and the 1995 murder trial of former footballer O.J. Simpson, the authorities badly wanted a conviction and a sentence that would make them look tough, the producers suggest.

"This district attorney's office had a pretty huge chip on its shoulder and was looking for conviction by any means."

Wolf says of the Menendez brothers, who are now in their late 40s and serving their terms in different prisons: "They probably should have been out eight or 10 years ago and should have been convicted of first-degree manslaughter."

And, adds Balcer, social attitudes at the time meant there was less sympathy for male victims of molestation than there would be today.

If Erik had been "Erika", a girl who killed her parents to stop them from molesting her, the siblings "would not be in jail today", he argues.

Asked to comment on the perception that he is jumping on the bandwagon with this foray into true crime, Wolf looks unperturbed. Viewers will "watch if they like it", he says matter-of-factly.

And he believes the Menendez case is nothing less than "one of the crimes of the century".

"It has love, lust, lying, cheating - basically all seven deadly sins in one place."

•Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders airs in Singapore on Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316, StarHub TV Channel 510) on Wednesdays at 9pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 04, 2017, with the headline 'New drama tackles true case of brothers killing parents'. Print Edition | Subscribe