Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders., NBC. Tuesday, September 26, 10 p.m.
- SEAL Team. CBS. Wednesday, September 27, 9 p.m.
Fred Allen is usually remembered as one of the great comic voices of the golden age of radio in the 1930s and '40s. (If for no other reason than that he drove NBC censors of the day clinically insane. Convinced there was something, somehow dirty about his running gags about the dimwitted foibles of the populace of a town called North Wrinkle, the network forbade him to ever mention it again unless he could prove it didn't exist.) But though Allen didn't have a lot of success on television, he was a one-man factory of witty aphorisms on the subject of the tube. Consider this: "They're calling TV a new medium. Why medium? Because nothing on it is well done." Then there was his anticipation of reality TV ("people who haven't anything to do watch people who can't do anything") and, the subject of this week's TV programming observation, "Imitation is the sincerest form of television."
Here in the second week of the new fall broadcast season, the top two offerings are the (at least) third miniseries adaptation on the ineptly parricidal Menendez brothers and a seemingly flawless clone of a bang-bang drama about U.S. special forces operations, it's pretty hard to argue with the astuteness of that last Allen observation.
Yet before dismissing this week's shows as beneath even the contempt of a TV critic—which would be a truly Olympian achievement, by the way—some careful consideration must be given to Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders.
For one thing, it represents the most audacious branding effort since back in the 1950s when entire shows were named after the products that sponsored them, like The Texaco Star Theater. In this, executive producer Dick Wolf is employing the name of his cookie-cutter Law & Order series (at least seven of them so far, not distinguishable from one another by the human eye) to launch an entirely unrelated anthology true-crime series. If this works, I expect Law & Order: Chupacabra and Law & Order: Kardashian Butt-Sculpting to follow shortly.
Even more startlingly, The Menendez Brothers is not a bad show at all. Wolf's laconic just-the-bloodily-murderous-facts-ma'am approach mixes surprisingly well with the tabloid-trash genre. When your show stars parent-killing sociopaths who raise incestuous child-molestation as a defense, you don't need to toss Lady Gaga or Siegfried and Roy into the mix.
Before O.J. and the white Bronco drove into our lives, the Menendez brothers seemed like the made-for-TV true crime couple of the century. Vacuous Beverly Hills brats, they were accused in 1989 of shotgunning their wealthy parents to death so they could buy Porches and tennis coaches without taking a lot of lip about it. Their first trial, broadcast daily by Court TV (the early incarnation of what is today TruTV) was a national sensation—or so we thought until O.J came long and redefined the term.
Regardless of what you think about the Simpson case, it hit a lot of cultural touchstones—race, celebrity, domestic abuse, the 24-hour news cycle—that lent a serious foundation to its tabloid glamour.
The Menendez story, though, was pure sleaze, wealthy sociopaths cannibalizing themselves. And aside from a slight populist tinge ("Mercedes loaners!" exclaims a homicide detective as he and his partner pass a line of luxury cars while walking up the driveway to the crime scene in the Menendez mansion. "My wife takes the car in for service, she gets a bus ticket"), Wolf refrains from trying to imbue the spectacle with substance.
And why bother? He's got a pulp-Shakespearian cast of characters to play with. There's elder brother Lyle (soap hearthrob Miles Gaston Villanueva, doing a surprisingly credible job), who fantasizes about becoming the chicken-wing king of American college campuses with the proceeds of the murders. Whiny younger brother Erik (Gus Halper, Goat) is stupid enough to write a screenplay outlining how he intended to kill his parents. Judalon Smith (Heather Graham) is there as the lusty and vengeful mistress of Erik's shrink.
And best of all, Edie Falco is back on TV as hired-run defense attorney Leslie Abramson, playing her as a Jewish mother with fangs, doting on the psychos she springs from prison, resolutely indifferent to their victims.
Wolf's Law & Order shows are notorious for their reliance on close-ended storytelling (every episode is resolved in 42 minutes without any loose threads, the better to sell them in syndication, where they're likely to be shown out of order) at the expense of the characters, who often struggle to attain even one-dimensionality.
But that works pretty well in The Menendez Brothers, where the characters have been hand-delivered by history and the principal challenge is sorting out a coherent story line from a somewhat complex series of events. The scripts, mostly written by L&O veteran Rene Balcer, do a nifty job of carving a clean narrative trail through the usual true-crime cloud of ephemera.
CBS' SEAL Team offers a different sort of challenge: how to tell it apart from The Brave, the virtually identical shoot-'em-all-and-let-Muhammad-sort-'em-out series that debuted last week on NBC. Everything The Brave's got, SEAL Team's got, too.
Virile but vulnerable team leader? Check. Young, talented but wild team member? Check. Prim civilian female supervisor concealing a smokin' hot body under her power pants suit, possibly to be deployed at any moment? Check. Team-wide ability to shoot 12,000 Muslim hordes with seven bullets? Check. So, basically, it comes down to whether you prefer David Boreanez and Jessica Pare (she played Don Draper's French-Canadian wife in Mad Men) of SEAL Team or Mike Vogel and Anne Heche of The Brave?
Me, I say turn 'em over to the Menendez brothers and let Dick Wolf sort it out.