Thursday, March 29, 2018

American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson

(Television Addiction)

...okay, so I'm a bit late to the party on this one.  But I did watch it, and I do have some thoughts, so I'm going to blog about it.

Why I Watched It
When I first heard of this show, I had zero interest in it.
That stupid O.J. Simpson trial, and that stupid media circus that surrounded it, had already consumed enough of our lives.  The last thing I wanted to do was watch a 10 hour dramatization of it.

But then I started noticing all the positive reviews this thing was getting, and I started getting slightly more interested.
In particular, the avclub (which I regularly visit) had some very positive commentary on this series, which made me interested.

See all their commentary HERE.

The past couple months, American Crime Story season 2 has been on TV.  I have cable in my apartment, so I see it from time to time.  I haven't been watching it regularly, but I've been catching the odd episode here and there.  And I found it interesting.

So at this point I was intrigued enough to go back and watch Season 1:  The People v. O. J. Simpson.

But first...
Some Thoughts on the O.J. Trial
I had never heard of O.J. Simpson before the murders.  (I was never a sports fan).
Obviously O.J. was very famous, but I think at least a certain percentage of Americans were like me.  We didn't know who this guy was, we didn't care, and we were a bit mystified at how much media coverage this whole thing got.

But even if you didn't care, you couldn't escape it.  The trial was on TV every day, but even if you weren't actively watching the trial, it was still on the front pages of the newspapers, on the editorial pages, on the editorial cartoons, on the nightly news, on the radio, on SNL, on late night talk shows, on the morning talk show I listened to as I drove to school every morning....
You couldn't escape it.
And the whole thing went on for a year!

By the end, of course, it had become such a big media event that all of us were emotionally invested in the verdict.
When the verdict was delivered, I remember my teaching stopping school so that we could watch it live on T.V.  (I think this was actually pretty common--most people stopped school or work).  And I remember how angry we were when we heard he was not guilty.  And I remember how the discussion of the verdict dominated everything for the next couple weeks (it was in our school paper, it was discussed during the sermon at church that week, and of course it was national news.)

Obviously anyone who has lived through this doesn't need me to remind them.  But I'm going through the trouble of making all of this explicit because I've discovered that this is not actually a universal experience.
In my years in Japan, Cambodia and Vietnam, I've discovered that this is a particularly American thing.  (Many of my Japanese friends, even ones who were the same age as me, had no idea who O.J. Simpson was.)
It is also, now that the trial is over 20 years ago, now becoming a generational thing.
Assume that for the first 5 years of life people aren't really aware of the news, and that means you have people who are almost 30 now who have no memory of the O.J. trial.

I currently live in Vietnam, and I currently work with a lot of people under 30.  So I'm discovering that the fact I know who all these people are is now part of my identity.  Knowing about Marcia Clark and Judge Ito and Kato Kaelin marks me as being a certain age, and being from a certain culture.
I've occasionally found myself in the position of having to explain to people what the O.J. Simpson trial was, and what a big deal it was at the time.

I'm even discovering that I've begun developing a certain nostalgia for these names.  At one time hearing about the O.J. trial used to give me a headache, but now it evokes memories of my teenagers years, and reminds me of when I was young.

Funny thing nostalgia--but that's a different subject for a different post.

And here's another thing that may be a different subject for a different post--how much was the O.J. Simpson trial a big media circus that distracted us from the real news, and how much was it the real news?
I mean, I know the whole media frenzy was stupid.  But it happened.  This trial dominated the cultural conversation for 2 years during the 1990s.  And nobody can erase that now.  It's officially a part of our history.
200 years from now, historians will still be discussing the O.J. Simpson trial, and the effect it had on the culture of the time.  (Although granted your average Joe on the street probably won't remember it in 200 years--your average Joe on the street who is under 30 already doesn't remember it.)

Also, although the trial was neither the cause of, nor the solution to, a lot of the social problems going on at the time, it was certainly very illustrative of them.
And to its credit, the TV show American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson shows this very well.  The race question is obviously all through this trial, but the problem of sexism is almost just as big.  (it is incredible what Marcia Clark went through, and  The People v. O. J. Simpson does a very good  job of showing all the sexism she faced).
Not to mention the classism.  (The O.J. Simpson trial showed very clearly that the rich and famous don't get tried like the rest of us.)

And (of course) questions of the media and celebrity obsession.  This was always the obvious issue, but The People v. O. J. Simpson deals with it in interesting ways.  On the one hand, the media creates this story, but on the other hand, the participants like Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran are fueling it by obviously playing to the cameras.
And even Judge Ito also comes off as being corrupted by the fame that this trial offers him.   (He proudly shows off mail that celebrities have sent to him, and his wife lies on her conflict of interest form so that Judge Ito can get the case.)

The Review
I'm going to borrow my analysis from the avclub, because I think there reviewer was very insightful about what made this series work.  From this article HERE.

Here’s the thing: We all already knew how American Crime Story was going to end. We knew this from the opening shots of the pilot episode ad from before the series even premiered. That’s the inherent challenge built in to the true crime genre: How do you build suspense, increase tension, and create a powerful, gripping narrative if we already know the outcome? The answer, at least for American Crime Story, was to focus on the characters rather than the crime. And what’s more, to focus on the attorneys, the jurors, the judge, the speculating media, the friends and acquaintances and family of the deceased — focus on just about everyone except the alleged murderer standing trial. The trial of the century was the People v. O.J. Simpson but in American Crime Story, we witnessed everyone else take the stand.

I think this is spot-on.  The least interesting person in this whole story is O.J. Simpson.  But there were a lot of other interesting stories in this tale.
The story of Marcia Clark, and all the sexism she had to face in this trial.
The conflict between Christopher Darden and Johnny Cochran was interesting.
All of the clashing egos and conflicts on The Dream Team was interesting.
The story of Robert Kardashian and his growing doubts was interesting.

There were a lot of very interesting stories going on here.

And there were a lot of little interesting twists and turns.
For example, I never knew (or had forgotten) about how Mark Fuhrman's attacks on Judge Ito's wife almost caused a mistrial.  That was an interesting little twist that got thrown into this trial.

This little project also managed to attract a considerable amount of talent.
For a T.V. show, there's a surprising amount of Hollywood movie actors.
John Travolta is amazing in this--his Robert Shapiro absolutely steals the whole thing.
But Nathan Lane is equally amazing--his slimy portrayal of the shifty  F. Lee Bailey was great to watch.
And the scenes when John Travolta and Nathan Lane faced off against each other... brilliant!

Bruce Greenwood (a.k.a. Captain Pike from the Star Trek movies) is just classic as the grizzled old District Attorney who is always angry and swearing.

All in all, enough drama in this to merit a recommendation.  That is, if you haven't seen it already, of course.

...but I do have a couple complaints.
The show works best when it takes itself seriously.
It works less well when it tries to be pandering.
Sure, there's an element of a joke to the whole O.J. Simpson trial.  But it's important for a series to be tonally consistent.  You can either play this thing as drama, or you can play it as farce, but it's tough to do both.
Some of the montage scenes, and some of the music cues, struck me as a bit cheesy.
Also... there were a few points were cameos of the Kardashian family were a little bit too obvious (Although on the other hand, I had not realized that the O.J. Simpson trial was the reason that this family got famous in the first place....So I guess that's another new thing I learned.)

Other Notes:
* I had forgotten just how vile a human being Mark Furhman actually was.  It was more than just the use of the n-word on those tapes--he talked about torturing and beating minorities, and manufacturing evidence.  And apparently his supervisor (Judge Ito's wife) had had to reprimand him for writing KKK on Martin Luther King posters.
"I wonder what ended up happening to him," I thought to myself.  "I imagine after all of this came out, he ended up ostracized by everyone, and hopefully died poor and penniless."
So I looked him up on Wikipedia and.... nope.  He wrote several books, became a regular contributor on Fox News, and had his own radio talk show.
Because of course he did.  There's no racist so vile he can't be rehabilitated on Fox News.

Link of the Day
Dershowitz vs Chomsky debate Israel at Harvard--This is an oldie, but I figured this was appropriate here since Alan Dershowitz was yet another character in the O.J. Simpson trial.  One of the many other interesting little stories in this series that I didn't have time to mention.


Whisky Prajer said...

Well, I am even later to the party. This is on my list, but I have to finish OJ: Made In America first, and I'm only a third of the way through that (recommended viewing, btw). So very much to watch, and who knows how much time to do it...

Joel Swagman said...

Huh. I had never heard of OJ: Made In America until you mentioned it.

I googled it, and it looks like it's been getting great reviews.

I'm afraid I won't be getting to it anytime soon though. One 10 hour show on O.J. was enough for me. This should satiate my O.J. curiosity for some years to come, I think.

But... let me know how it is when you finish it. (Perhaps with a review on your blog?)

Whisky Prajer said...

I doubt I can add anything to Brian Tellerico's review, but we'll see. What I can say after watching the first 2 hours is I'd forgotten just what a mensch we (white, lower middle-class North America) thought OJ was. And, in many ways, the OJ of that day did indeed comport himself with exceptional grace. But the scene, the whole scene, became so incredibly ... twisted.

Joel Swagman said...

Sorry for the late response on this.

I read that link, and found that description fascinating.

I had never heard of O.J. before the murders. Some of this was due to not being a sports fan. and some of this was due to being born in 1978. So I really had no idea of his standing in the cultural wars. That was an interesting review.

I'm actually a bit curious to see that O.J. Made in America series now. But I'm not sure I could track down a copy out here in Vietnam. And even if I could, I think I should probably take a break from O.J. after this 10 hour American Crime Story Series.

I did, however, just waste about an hour on Youtube looking up old O.J. Simpsons commercials.
Boy, he really comes across looking like the nicest guy in the world, doesn't he? No wonder everyone had trouble believing he could have committed those murders.

Whisky Prajer said...

I'm currently mired in Babylon Berlin. Weimar Berlin has been a personal fascination since I was a teen, and only deepens as I get older and the scene to the south of us gets nuttier -- so needless to say, that's where I'm devoting much of my screen time.

I was roughly 30 when the Bronco chase happened, and the consensus in my circle was "He's guilty as hell." There were, however, a few (very noisy) stand-outs who took exception to our declarations because the larger point (from their POV) was "You've gotta fight the powers that be." That these voices were coming from inside the (not yet so named) LGTBQ community put me immediately on uneasy terms with identity politics, a relationship that has not improved in the passing years.

Joel Swagman said...

So, Babylon Berlin is yet another series I've never heard of before that looks absolutely fascinating.
Any chance you'll be reviewing this one then?

I should clarify my comment above.
My memory of the thing--I was on a weeklong church youthgroup trip while the whole news broke about the murder investigation.

I had never heard of O.J. before, but many of my friends had. And their initial reaction was incredulity. "O.J.? No, O.J. could never have done anything like that."

That lasted all of a couple days.

But by the time of the Bronco chase, though, everyone in my community thought he was guilty.

If memory serves, I didn't realize there was a black/white divide on this question until the celebrations after the verdict.