Now that Making a Murderer (Netflix) and American Crime Story (FX) have wrapped NBC is looking to grab a share of that true-crime audience before they tune back to truTV. And they’re doing so in partnership with Dick Wolf, creator of the Law & Order franchise and arguably the king of prime-time crime drama.
Law & Order: True Crime will be an anthology series following a different true-crime story each season, says The Hollywood Reporter, and for season 1 they’re chronicling the case of the Menendez brothers. Lyle and Erik were 21 and 18 years old when they were arrested for murdering their parents with a shotgun in 1989. The defense built their case on a story of parental abuse including sexual abuse and substance and mental health problems. The prosecution argued that the brothers were calculating killers’ intent on grabbing an inheritance.
Though lesser known than O.J. Simpson the trial of the Menendez brothers primed the country to be entranced when Simpson took over the news. The trial began in Los Angeles courts in 1993 and played out over Court TV while the country debated whether the brothers were damaged children or calculating killers. The jury was deadlocked – twice – and the brothers were eventually retried and convicted, though without attendant cameras.
Compared to the rural America chronicled in Making a Murderer this case is full of the kind of larger than life drama that viewers love to debate. The trial featured colorful personalities that will easily translate to dramatic TV. Jose Menendez, the boys’ father, emigrated from Cuba amidst the Cuban Revolution and worked his way to leadership in the entertainment industry. The brothers were raised In Calabasas, CA, and later the family moved to the Beverly Hills mansion where the murders took place. The brothers’ activity in the months following the murders are prime fodder for recreation and deadlocked juries men conflicting evidence that can be highlighted. Both men were eventually sentenced to life without parole.
It’s doubtful the new series will uncover any kind of evidence that leads to a serious re-evaluation of the trial but it will probably provide viewers with a larger, more nuanced picture of a story we thought we already knew. Think season 1 of NPR’s record-breaking podcast Serial, which presented questions about problems with the prosecution of Adnan Sayed, vs. season 2 which provided little-known background to flesh out the actions of Bowe Bergdahl.
Wolf has partnered with NBC for 5 Law & Order series as well as Chicago P.D., Chicago Med, and Chicago Fire. Two of his series – SVU and the original Law & Order – are among the longest running dramas in TV.
As online and delayed viewing have eroded broadcast ratings networks continue to look for ways to utilize event programming to grab viewers. NBC Entertainment president Jennifer Salke said the new series stemmed from talks with Wolf about how to create an event series on the ripped-from-the-headlines model of Law & Order.
This case captured the public’s attention like nothing before it as it examined taboo issues such as patricide and matricide in gruesome detail, all against a backdrop of privilege and wealth. We will recreate the cultural and societal surroundings of both the murders and trials when people were not only obsessed with the case but examining how and why these brothers committed these heinous crimes.
Wolf added that the idea developed as he and the NBC leadership looked at the future for the Law & Order brand.
[We] are excited to extend the franchise with a scripted limited anthology series that focuses on a high-profile trial. There is no shortage of compelling real-life criminal cases, and the Menendez trial was more scintillating than most crime fiction.