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Television

O.J. Still Holds Allure in 'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson'

David Himmel

American Crime Story reveals more about the audience than the already well-known elements of the O.J. Simpson trial.


American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson

Airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm
Cast: Sterling K. Brown, Kenneth Choi, Cuba Gooding Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Nathan Lane, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance
Network: FX
Amazon

The ride in the white Bronco occurred when I was barely 15-years-old. To me, a white, Chicago suburb kid, O.J. Simpson was that guy from the Naked Gun films. I knew he'd been a successful football player, but that was before my time.

As quickly as the trial erupted, I grew tired of it. I avoided it the best I could until watching the verdict in my English class. At that moment, I knew enough to think that something had gone terribly wrong.

After that, I forgot about O.J. and the rest of the circus performers.

The moment the FX Network broadcasted its promo for American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, I couldn’t wait to watch it. I turned to books and news stories and Wikipedia to fill in what I was too young and too culturally removed from the issue to appreciate at the time: that the O.J. Simpson murder trial was a wretched display of everything absurd, corrupt, and repugnant about celebrity and the American criminal justice system. Racism, misogyny, and media ran feral the moment the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered, and all of it played out on TV.

With the DVR set to "record" The People v. O.J. Simpson, it plays out again. This time, I'm unable to look away. In this, I'm not alone; nearly 7.5 million people are watching. In a trend that's familiar to OJ the confirmed wife-beater, we keep coming back for the abuse. And I have to wonder, what in the hell is wrong with us? Why are we so attracted to this tragedy?

The Devil We Know

There's not going to be a surprise ending here. We know how things play out, and that that they don't play out in the favor of good. The Juice gets away with it. Then he’s found guilty in the civil trial, but never pays the damages owed. He writes (it was ghostwritten) a confession (If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer). He works on his golf game. Robert Kardashian, O.J.'s best friend and counsel, dies. Johnny Cochran dies. Former LAPD detective and proud racist Mark Fuhrman, despite a felony conviction for perjury, has a successful run writing true crime books.

If there’s any glimmer of justice, it's that Kato Kaelin got his own place, and that O.J. is now serving a 33-year prison sentence for attempting to steal memorabilia at gun point at the Palace Station hotel-casino in Las Vegas in 2007.

But knowing the ending of a story has never stopped us from watching it, anyway. Look at the success of Titanic, and the way we suffered through the Star Wars prequels. American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson gives us a behind-the-scenes look as the Trial of the Century unfolds.

A Glimpse Into the Past and the Future

The show, which pulls its material from Jeffery Toobin's 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, can't be considered a great show. There are plenty of heavy-handed statements made by the characters that, with the benefit of knowing the ending, the lines could be better delivered with a Ferris Bueller-like wink into the camera, as when the prosecution says time and again that the case is a slam dunk. Ha! Wink.

It's campy. The acting is cartoonish; John Travolta, who’s credited as a producer and portrays defense attorney Robert Shapiro, plays what has to be his dream role of a light-in-the-loafers, heterosexual Jew with so much camp that it’s hard not to see the actor having the time of his life. But so what? We love camp.

Even though the acting is, at times, over the top, the cast is full of people we love to watch. There's Travolta, Sarah Paulson plays prosecutor Marcia Clark smoking the hell out of her cigarettes, Cuba Gooding Jr., as The Juice, acts like a former pro-football player straddling the line of CTE psychosis and sanity, Courtney B. Vance nails Cochran's flamboyant egocentricities, and David Schwimmer becomes Robert Kardashian, providing the most realistic, if not totally accurate, depiction of them all. Go to the IMDB page and see the full cast for yourself. It's like a supergroup of Hollywood Vampires, just less inane. (Johnny Depp’s a rockstar now? That guy's one role away from playing Cap'n Crunch.)

The peek behind the curtain, though it may expose the castration and abandonment of attorney-client privilege in order to get this peek, shows us the players struggling to maintain order as things spin out of control. Most of what we see isn’t new information; we’re just seeing how the tainted sausage was made. We can laugh at how quickly O.J. creates a complete quagmire for his legal team. We can feel deep sadness when Nicole's daughter calls her mother's condo the night of the murder and with the answering machine recording, pleads for her mom to answer the phone, and says she wants to come home, while two LAPD detectives listen dumbfounded as her mother lays nearly decapitated just outside the front door. We get a look at how fame was impressed upon O.J.’s goddaughter Kim Kardashian and her siblings.

In one heavy-handed moment, the third episode opens with Robert Kardashian and his four children (Kim, Khloe, Rob and Kourtney) dining at a popular L.A. spot. They’ve just been seated, thanks to Robert being recognized as O.J.'s lawyer when the hostess says to him, "You’re Richard Cordovian." Wink. All of that actually happened and, according to the show, the Kardashian Kids got their first taste and lesson in the moral implications that come with fame as their father says to them, "We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and being a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It's hollow. And it means nothing without a virtuous heart."

This little speech paints the kids as monsters when you consider that they've ignored or forgotten their dead dad's advice. That’s not really fair, because Robert's children aren't monsters, they're just simpletons.

Of course, maybe that speech didn't even happen. It doesn't matter. We watch it and we slurp it up because it's an origin story of perfect tabloid trash and mind-numbing reality television featuring the kind of voyeuristic celebrity masturbation entertainment the people seem to want. It's the same reason the trial had us obsessed back in 1994 and 1995.

The O.J. Simpson murder trial is ripe with the elements of a 101-level drama: fame, excess, sex, violence, and the risk of the hero losing it all. What made the trial even more fascinating, though, and helped propel it to astronomical heights of lunacy, is the blurred depiction of the real hero.

Watching the Mighty Fall

O.J.'s not the hero of this story. He might have been 22 years ago, but this television show reveals that there was a different hero designed to lose.

Our hero here is Marcia Clark, the hard working mother in the fray of an ugly divorce who is hell bent on busting the bad guys. Paulson shows us a woman cocksure on the surface, but desperately grasping for some kind of control. The more she tries to get a hold on things, the more control evades her. Her kids are rambunctious brats (as kids can be), her husband is transitioning to a pushy ex-husband, and despite the hard evidence in her favor, she can't stay ahead of the three-ring circus act being performed by Shapiro, Cochran, and the media.

In almost every scene she's in, I find myself shaking my head in pity and embarrassment for Clark, because I know that every bit of certainty she utters brings her one step closer to her demise. And she's just so sure she's going to win.

Poor Marcia. She only wanted to do what was right. Instead, Jay Leno turned her into the slut groupie of his Dancing Itos. Because in the '90s, sexism was funny. And somehow -- and for way too long -- so was Jay Leno. It was a dark time.

Peeling Back the Onion of Truth

The draw to watch American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson was there from the start. What I realized as the weeks passed was that part of what was so alluring about this show wasn’t just about O.J. or the fall of Marcia Clark; it was the Kardashians. The tragedy of the murders ignited the spark in what would go on to become this generation's twisted fascination -- although this one with next to nothing at stake -- Keeping Up With the Kardashians.

With the season finalé, even though I know how it ends, I don't know what it will reveal. Like the trial itself, my guess is that it'll reveal something about who we are as people, as consumers, some of us as sexist, racists, seven deadly sinners. We're gluttons for the misery of others. I don't want to be, but clearly I am, because I seem to be making up for all I missed back when the original trial was all over the media.

I could claim that I'm not as guilty because I'm not glued to the actual trial and its wacky sideshows. But that's just me putting on a weak disguise, just like O.J. did by donning the black knit cap when he killed Nicole and Ronald. Like Cochran said during closing arguments, "O.J. Simpson in a knit cap is still O.J.Simpson".

David Himmel is an author and an award-winning screenwriter. He lives in Chicago with a dog and a fiancé.

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