Murder is forever and, apparently, so is TV’s obsession with the 1980s.
The two meet in “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” the first installment of a new anthology series from the makers of NBC’s procedural crime franchise.
The eight-part drama, which premieres Tuesday and stars Edie Falco as defense attorney Leslie Abramson, revolves around the 1989 murders of wealthy Hollywood entertainment executive Jose Menendez and his wife, Kitty.
The couple were shot multiple times while watching TV in the den of their Beverly Hills mansion. Sons Lyle and Erik, 21 and 18 at the time, were sentenced to life in prison without parole for the murders.
In telling the behind-the-scenes story of the trial and the Menendez family, the series successfully pairs courtroom drama with the ’80s/’90s nostalgia (green-screen computers; puffy, pleated Dockers shorts; smoking on airplanes) that has endeared audiences to other shows such as “Stranger Things” and “GLOW.”
The series has addictive potential, which is critical given that it follows the success of last year’s award-winning “The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” The latter was also an anthology series focused on a Court TV-era crime and trial that became a national fixation.
The FX show chronicled the criminal trial of Simpson, who was eventually acquitted of the double murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman.
Part of the success of “People v OJ” was that it used the case as a mirror to reflect the racial tensions, misogyny and injustice within the LAPD, the media and culture at large. It showed how much things have, and haven’t, changed.
Judging by the two episodes made available for review, it looks as if “The Menendez Murders” will travel a similar path of social commentary, but now tackling class and wealth in the stratified city of L.A.
The immediate reaction to the killings of Jose and Kitty Menendez was that it was an outside job — the mob, an aggrieved business partner, but certainly no one from their tony neighborhood.
“There are no bad people in Beverly Hills,” Det. Les Zoeller (Sam Jaeger) says sarcastically. He senses immediately it’s an inside job, even though the Beverly Hills Police Department has failed to grill Erik (Gus Halper) and Lyle (Miles Gaston Villanueva) or even give them a gunshot residue test before releasing them.
But when the boys begin buying Rolex watches, new cars and Armani suits on their father’s business card mere days after the murder, other law enforcement officials also begin to take notice. Abramson sees the story developing in the news.
Falco brings the brassy attorney to life here, even in the first couple episodes, before the Menendez brothers stood before a jury and gave Court TV their first big televised trial.
The series depicts her hugging other young clients accused of murder, petting their heads before the jury, bringing them snacks, doting on them like a helicopter mom while ripping apart the prosecution like any great defense lawyer should. At home, she looks at adopting a child with her Los Angeles Times journalist husband Tim Rutten (Chris Bauer), even though they joke they may be too old to qualify.
Erik’s therapist, Dr. Jerome Oziel (Josh Charles), is a sleazy character whose compromised morals almost ensure Lyle and Erik will never be caught. After Erik confesses during a session, Oziel hopes to cash in on the crime by forcing both brothers to see him three times a week, and at the top billing rate. He says doctor/patient privilege means he can’t contact the police unless the boys ask for it.
But when Oziel’s scorned mistress, Judalon Smyth (Heather Graham), becomes unhinged and contacts the police, the case breaks wide open.
Dick Wolf, creator and executive producer of the “Law & Order” franchise, is also behind “The Menendez Murders.” The series is part of a larger push to capitalize on the increased interest in true crime, including unscripted projects at Oxygen and A&E.
But stylistically, it’s easy to forget the Menendez drama is part of that brand until that trademark Dun dun! rings out between segments.
The Menendez story is not as immediately consuming as the celebrated O.J. series, perhaps because there was no dramatic car chase or fallen-celebrity scenario to kick off the story.
But with a solid cast and Falco in the lead, “The Menendez Murders” has the potential to dominate in an otherwise crowded field of true-crime dramas.
‘Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders’
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-14-LSV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language, sexual content and violence)