CBS' 'Menendez' cold, calculated


May 21, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

The bodies of a man and a woman bounce in slow motion as blast after blast of shotgun pellets tear into them. And the blasts and the bouncing seem to go on and on in the bloody den of this home in Beverly Hills.

Beverly Hills? Blood? Murder?

Why it must be what we've all been waiting for -- another reconstruction of the murders of Jose and Kitty Menendez at the hands of their sons Lyle and Erik.

Fox did its version of the murders and trials in a movie last month that drew flies in the Nielsen ratings. Tomorrow night at 9, CBS takes it one step beyond in the mini-series "Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills."

It's not a rerun -- exactly. At four hours, CBS' version is twice as long and slightly better than the trash from Fox. Based in part on an article by Dominick Dunne, the dialogue is more believable and the characters are more than cartoonish sketches.

Edward James Olmos also makes CBS' version better. Olmos gives the father, Jose, some dignity, as well as the widely reported nuttiness. He also makes Jose seem more sympathetic than did James Farentino, who played Jose in the Fox film like a bad imitation of Adolf Hitler.

Unlike the Fox version, there are no flashbacks showing Jose sexually abusing his sons. CBS' version is more skeptical of the boys' claims. Nor is there any suggestion that Kitty Menendez knew her sons were being abused.

Damian Chapa, as Lyle, and Travis Fine, as Erik, look like the Menendez brothers and successfully combine the strands of their characters: spoiled rich kids, frightened children and time bombs about to explode.

The brothers are also morally bankrupt in the CBS miniseries. They go on a $15,000 spending spree before their parents' bodies are buried. When Lyle gets his girlfriend pregnant, he lets his father pay her off to have an abortion. The two boys rob neighborhood houses as teen-agers. Lyle is tossed out of Princeton for cheating. For his parents' memorial service, Lyle wears his father's shoes.

The brothers see their parents' deaths as a release, allowing them to get on with their lives. In their case, getting on with their lives means buying a restaurant, a fabulous oceanfront condo and, in Erik's case, nearly having a nervous breakdown.

It is the near-breakdown that does the boys in, as the girlfriend of Erik's psychiatrist goes to the police after listening outside the therapist's door to a conversation between the brothers and the shrink.

There should be some resonance in this story of bad blood in Beverly Hills. For one thing, it is a story with out heroes. A better script would have explored that vacuum.

Instead, what we have is a production with a sleazy tabloid feel to it.

It's a made-for-TV-movie made by the numbers: Start with an outrageous act, take most of the film to explore it, and end with the verdict at the brothers' trial.

In the end, it's a story that exploits violence.

The murder scene is probably the most violent to air on any network this season.

And, in giving the Menendez saga four hours on two nights -- tomorrow and Tuesday -- CBS is celebrating or, at least, exploiting the brutality of these cold-blooded killings.


What: "Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills"

When: 9 p.m. tomorrow and Tuesday

' Where: WBAL, Channel 11

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