It’s easy to see NBC’s predicament, as well as a likely split between viewers: The many franchise fans who still eat up “SVU” every week will likely be eager to sample a new edition. Old viewers who left when Sam Waterston did may return, too. NBC is clearly counting on Dick Wolf’s sturdy tentpole to lure back the kind of ratings that all shows not titled “This Is Us” are still chasing.
But the smartest thing “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” does is distance itself from the brand quickly. The title card looks familiar, if a bit crowded, but the distinctive “chung chung” sound is slowed down for a darker, more ominous introduction. Similarly, the pithy transition music pops up between a few scenes in the pilot, but is used less and less as the episodes continue. The show uses time and place inserts to signal a chronological leap forward, but the black-and-white flashbacks, with accompanying voiceover, are thankfully dialed down.
Most importantly, the blunt brief expository moments — introducing a key piece of evidence or another telling development in the case — are phased out in favor of more nuanced storytelling. That shows a critical understanding of the difference between what “Law & Order” was and what “True Crime” wants to be: Those scenes — 10-15 seconds long and cutting straight to the point without subtlety — became an accepted style because “Law & Order” was an episodic series, needing to fit full story arcs into one 43-minute episode. “True Crime” has more time to let its story play out, and needs to eliminate these exposition dumps entirely.
It does a decent job after a rather thud-heavy pilot, and the second episode shows a willingness to explore characters beyond the two-dimensional needs of a procedural. Edie Falco’s Leslie Abramson isn’t just a good lawyer who puts work before family. She’s also a staunch supporter of the sixth amendment to the point that she’ll fight for clients who are known dirtbags. She’s one of the first people to think the Menendez brothers killed their parents, but that doesn’t keep her from ferociously defending them.
The most nagging character issues, though, are purposeful — at least from a network standpoint. Little has been done to hide the similarities between FX’s Emmy-winning juggernaut “American Crime Story” and “True Crime: The Menendez Brothers.” From “crime” in both titles, to the anthology format, to the look of the series, to the casting, time period, subject matter, this is NBC’s version of the cable darling.
Falco is the new Sarah Paulson, perm and all. There’s no Christopher Darden for her to flirt with, but she does have a male partner sharing the case, and the two series even share a few real-life figures (including Gil Garcetti and Robert Shapiro). Finally, Josh Charles is the deceitful equivalent of David Schwimmer, down to the double-breasted suits and amazing ’80s hairdo (though fans of the “Sports Night” star will likely associate his Dr. Jerome Oziel character with Charles’ douchey frat bro in “Wet Hot American Summer: 10 Years Later”).
What results is an oddly watchable combination of “Law & Order” and “American Crime Story.” “The Menendez Murders” borrows so heavily from both, its only identity comes from a new true crime story (that younger viewers may not know the ending to) and Lesli Linka Glatter’s tense, observant direction. The “Homeland” veteran and TV legend brings as much to the table as she possibly can, smoothing over the awkward combination of pre-existing series while slowly establishing a patient tone. There’s still a bluntness in communication inherent to broadcast — an additional summary here, a lingering close-up there — but it, too, dissipates to an acceptable degree after the pilot.
This newest iteration of the original series also reminds us how much modern crime shows owe to “Law & Order.” Though some of its staples feel outdated here, there’s no denying the core “ripped from the headlines” storytelling stems from Wolf’s tentpole, as it did with “American Crime Story.” Turns out, when it comes to “True Crime,” there’s room underneath for all.
“Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders” premieres Tuesday, September 26 at 10 p.m. on NBC.