When “ripped from the headlines” isn’t enough, “Law & Order True Crime” is born.
The newest addition to creator Dick Wolf’s decades-old franchise will air on NBC this fall, the latest in a spate of TV specials aimed at revisiting famous criminal cases from America’s past. There was “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” there was “Casting JonBenet,” and now there’s “The Menendez Murders,” a miniseries that revolves around Lyle and Erik Menendez, the brothers convicted of killing their parents in a televised trial that dominated headlines in the mid-1990s.
“Law & Order” has always offered fans of its past and present series (“Special Victims Unit,” “Criminal Intent,” “Trial by Jury, “LA”) a dose of police procedurals and legal drama inspired by real-life events. In fact, in 1991, the original “Law & Order” aired an episode called “Serpent’s Tooth,” in which two brothers were suspected of killing their businessman father and mother. This was just under two years after Lyle and Erik made their infamous phone call: “Someone killed my parents!” Lyle screamed at a 911 operator on Aug. 20, 1989.
Longtime “Law & Order” producer René Balcer helped bring “Serpent’s Tooth” to life. This was before the yearslong Menendez Brothers case reached its media fever pitch ― before the foibles of a misconducted investigation into the assassination of a Hollywood executive and his wife came to light, and before the spectacle of their trial hit TV screens.
In “Serpent’s Tooth,” Russian mobsters were behind the deaths; the two sons were wrongly suspected. In reality, self-made millionaires José and Kitty Menendez were indeed brutally murdered by their well-to-do young sons (then 21 and 18, respectively, and now serving a life sentence without parole), who’d allegedly endured heinous abuse at the hands of their father. Their case was drawn out and misconstrued, involving high-profile lawyers, judges and bombastic witnesses. It’s a story so wild, and yet so true (you can read a thrilling rundown of the events on Rolling Stone), that Balcer decided to resurrect the tale when Wolf greenlit his “True Crime” spinoff last year.
Ahead of the show’s premiere on Sept. 26, we spoke to showrunner Balcer, who’ll be attending PaleyFest in Los Angeles in support of the new show next month:
What drew “Law & Order True Crime” to the Menendez Brothers case?
Well, back in the original recipe of “Law & Order,” the first episode I ever wrote was about the Menendez Brothers back in 1990. They had been arrested then, but we didn’t know ― it was still very early in the case ― about the abuse. We knew about the psychological abuse, but not so much about the sexual abuse, when I wrote the script. Our take on [the adapted plot] was that the Russian mob killed José and Kitty Menendez, or whatever their names were in the episode. We took that tact and it made for a pretty interesting episode. But at that time we weren’t pretending to be true crime. We were just inspired by headlines.
For me, [“Law & Order True Crime”] was a chance to revisit that story. What drew us to it was, in the 1990s, there were two famous trials: one was O.J. [Simpson] and the other was the Menendez Brothers. They hit people in different ways. With the Menendez case [...] for parents, it was like, we do everything for our kids, and this is the thanks we get? Is this why we pursue the American dream, so our kids can kill us? It was a very rich story, and that’s what drew Dick [Wolf] and I toward it.
You mentioned the complicated abuse allegations that surfaced during the trial. [The Menendez’ defense team claimed that José Menendez had both physically abused and molested his two sons, and that Kitty Menendez was aware of the abuse.] How did these allegations affect how the case was perceived at the time?
At that time, people sort of understood sexual abuse of children or girls, but the sexual abuse of boys, especially by their fathers, was not understood. We were still in a macho society as far as men were concerned, as far as the state of their emotional and psychological development at that point in history. So there was a lot of resistance to the idea that boys, especially teenage boys, could be molested by their father ― that they would submit. Why wouldn’t they just fight back and run away? There was not a great understanding of the mentality of abuse victims at that time. Now, hopefully, there is a better understanding.
What other factors complicated the case and the way it was presented in the media?
Another force that was at play was that in Los Angeles, the DA and Superior Court justices are elected. They run either every four years or every six years, so they are very attuned to the political whims of the electorate. Here you had a judge who had presided over a hung jury in the McMartin [preschool] case, and an acquittal in the Rodney King case, which led to the riots, and who, in the first Menendez trial, had presided over another hung jury. He was kind of held to task, especially for the Rodney King case. [...]
And the DA’s office under [Ira] Reiner, they had lost the McMartin case, they had lost the Rodney King case, and under [Gil] Garcetti, they had just lost the O.J. case. They had a big chip on their shoulder. On appeal, after the conviction of the boys, one of the appellate judges speculated that there might’ve been collusion between the DA’s office and the judge. That was never proven, but you have two political figures looking for reelection and trying to please the voters and give them what they wanted. So there was certainly a meeting of the minds. That’s a part of the case that’s not always well known.
“Law & Order” typically tells a story from the point of view of the police and prosecution. Will the show dive into some of the nuances of this speculated misconduct?
Well, in the original “Law & Order” recipe there was always an awareness of the abuse of prosecutorial powers. Even Jack McCoy got [punished] for overreaching. In “Law & Order” we also dealt with the issue of police malfeasance; maybe not necessarily planting evidence, but shading the truth, etc., etc. That is not foreign territory for us.
When I was retreading the aspects of the actual Menendez Brothers trial, I was struck by more than a few stranger-than-fiction aspects of the case. For example, before the murders, Erik allegedly co-wrote a screenplay about a son who kills his wealthy parents.
Well, the screenplay, when you actually read it, it’s like a gothic horror thing. It’s not what it was cracked up to be. It’s more in the Vincent Price kind of vein. It’s about a kid who you find out at the end of the script that, yes, he had his parents killed, but his whole thing is that he was into games of turning his friends into prey and all this kind of stuff. It was really kind of gothic horror, and in no way, shape or form a blueprint. He co-wrote it with someone else, so if it expressed anything, it was just a teenager’s fantasy about getting rid of authority figures and being a master of his own destiny. What was telling in the script was some eulogy that was given by the hero about his dead father, and some of that came straight out of Erik’s feelings toward his father, that alternately he was a great man, but also a monster.
Were there other stranger-than-fiction aspects of the case that caught your attention?
I think Erik’s psychologist, Dr. Jerry Oziel, and his mistress, played by Josh Charles and Heather Graham ― they are kind of the French farce aspect that impacted the resolution of the case. Basically, the Beverly Hills police had been spinning their wheels for seven months getting no real leads, no evidence, until the psychologist’s mistress spilled the beans to them, because she got in a spat with her lover. She went to the police and said, “Well, Erik confessed to Dr. Oziel.” And that was their big break. Even then ― even being given some pretty good information by this woman ― they were still unable to come up with any real evidence. They were unable to find the murder weapon, the clothes that were used, they found zero forensic evidence linking the boys to the crime. It was really because of this relationship between the psychologist and this woman that the case got broken. That’s a little bizarre!
Tell me a little bit about Edie Falco’s character. Was she your first pick to play the defense attorney, Leslie Abramson?
I think so. We may have made a wish list of the top five people, but she was at the top of the list, because she fits Leslie Abramson like a hand in glove. Leslie Abramson came from Queens, she kind of grew up on the streets, she’s got a quick mouth, she’s very feisty. Edie has those genetic traits, too. She’s obviously not as abrasive, but she can channel this character pretty easily, in terms of the Queens roots and the New York style of interpersonal relationships ― especially with judges and other lawyers. I had worked with Edie before; she did a number of episodes for us. She was just a natural for this.
Edie Falco has already discussed in interviews how unpopular her character was for defending the brothers. Does the show explore how issues of sexism or media narratives affected the way she was perceived at the time?
Absolutely. The team that represented the Menendez Brothers was Leslie Abramson, Jill Lansing, Marcia Morrissey ― there was the dream team for O.J., this was the female version of the dream team. Very competent counsel. And with Leslie Abramson, people say she was unpopular, but among the community of defense attorneys, she was very well respected. Feared might be overstating it, but prosecutors were intimidated by her. She was a fierce defender of her client’s constitutional rights and, of course, prosecutors never like that. To the press, she gave a lot of access, but when they overstepped, she gave back as good as she got. Those who have a negative view of her may change after watching this show, because she really defines what a defense attorney is. If I were ever accused of anything, I’d want her on my side.
“Law & Order” is already famous for its “ripped from the headlines” episode plots, but Dick Wolf told the Television Critics Association that “Law & Order True Crime” “is on a different level.” What sets “True Crime” apart from the rest of the franchise, beyond the clear departure from norms ― this being an anthology series?
First of all, the point of view is completely different. Also, it’s kind of a drama procedural ― there’s a procedural aspect, obviously ― but there are also other aspects that are pure character. It expands the definition of what a procedural might be. We go home with characters. The show is really about different kinds of families ― dysfunctional families ― and ultimately, what is being a parent all about? We have two very dysfunctional parents who were killed by their sons. The parallel story for Leslie Abramson is that at the time of the trial, she and her husband were in the process of adopting a child, and doing so with great trepidation, not only because of their age ― they were in their late 40s ― but because of certainly Leslie’s own upbringing. She was wondering if she would be a good mother. She was dealing with her own issues related to parenthood. So that helps drive her story. The story of the brothers: It’s really a relationship borne of trauma and very challenging circumstances, and how those two brothers stay together. And then you have this French farce aspect between the psychologist and his mistress. So it’s a very different kind of stew.
Did writers or producers explore other true crime stories before landing on this one?
This was the first one, because we knew the story and it just seemed a natural for any number of reasons to start off with.
Dick Wolf has already mentioned that he’d like to continue making “Law & Order True Crime,” citing a few of his favorite real-life criminals [including Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz and “Night Stalker” serial killer Richard Ramirez]. Are there any historic crimes you’d personally like to readdress if the series continues?
Well, just before we went on for the [Television Critics Association], I pitched Dick the Timothy McVeigh story and his eyes obviously lit up. There are many different cases ― Dick mentioned a few ― and all that will parsed out between Dick and the network.
As someone who’s been in the business of bringing crime stories to entertainment for more than a few years, what do you make of pop culture’s current obsession with true crime and revisiting trials past ― like O.J. Simpson and JonBenet Ramsey?
There’s always been a sub genre of drama and true crime that, without giving it the full bells-and-whistles treatment, was always partly documentary, partly reenactment. The public has always been fascinated by crime. One of the most famous stories in the world ― the very first crime story ― was Cain and Abel, a murder mystery. So people have always been interested in this. It’s a lens through which we can look at society, at our bad selves and our good selves. What’s different in the last couple years is we are now giving it pretty A-list treatment. MOWs [made-for-TV movies] and miniseries in the past did this ― the Jeffrey MacDonald story and any number of them through the ’70s and ’80s. Everything’s cyclical, right?
PaleyFest Fall TV Previews will take place Sept. 6-16 in Los Angeles. The “Law & Order True Crime” panel is scheduled for Sept. 11. The show will premiere on NBC on Sept. 26 at 10 p.m. ET.