KICKING TELEVISION: O.J. Simpson v. The People

KICKING TELEVISION: O.J. Simpson v. The People

A friend of mine recently posted a photo of himself on Instagram with a C-list celebrity who was visiting my hometown. It really shouldn’t have annoyed me—though it did. I mean, what do I care what people do on social media? I’m sure people are perturbed when I post links to my columns or openly question the integrity of bourbon lemonade. At least they’re not posting photos of cats or newborns or newborns with cats, right? But, when I took a moment to calm myself, I realized what frustrates me about our cultural obsession with celebrity is not the celebs themselves, but the pathological need to attach ourselves to them, no matter their character or accomplishments.

My distaste for fame-driven obsessive addictive disorder is not new. I’ve never understood People magazine or Entertainment Tonight or TMZ or Brody Jenner. For a while I had a weekly column for the Playboy offshoot The Smoking Jacket, for which I spent most of my virtual inches mocking the Kardashians and Hiltons. Perhaps somewhere in my sympathetic mind, I can accept obsessions with musicians or actors or whatever Ryan Seacrest is, but the celebrity afforded to spoiled, privileged, talentless, walking selfies angers me to no end. The Kardashian/Jenner cartel is the worst of the offenders. The beginnings of our allowance of celeb contributions to the cultural discourse can be traced to the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Our celeb culture, as it is today, is the fault of the OJ Simpson trial.

In some alternate universe, this column would be about NBC’s Frogmen being renewed for its twenty-second season. The O.J. Simpson vehicle, about an elite team of Navy SEALs freelancing out of a Malibu surf shop, would no doubt be celebrating its Law & Order-esque longevity with special crossover episodes with NBC’s other hit dramas The Blacklist and, well, The Blacklist, and guest star arcs from Al Cowlings and Caitlin Jenner. Matt Lauer would sit down with Juice and ask about how Orenthal James was able to escape the mean streets of San Francisco for NFL and Hollywood stardom, about growing up with rickets, about his father’s sexuality and gender, and his death from AIDS. In this alternate universe, racism is a forgotten nightmare, the gender gap is but a sliver, policing is done with hugs, and Scott Disick works at a Taco Bell in Encino.

Simpson was, and is, the product of our obsession with contrived royalty, our elevation of athletes, and our malignant, wilful ignorance of sexism. I’m amazed it took this long for his story to find its way to television. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson revisits the trial of the century, the spectacle that was everything for 15 months in the mid-nineties. Its accuracy is debatable. Its realization is flawed. Its performances are heavy-handed. It stars everybody. But despite its faults, it provokes a discussion of what the Simpson trial came to represent, how it changed the manner in which our culture disseminates “news,” and how we are dangerously obsessed with celebrity and stardom.

On June 17th, 1994, someone’s parents were away. I was in my second to last year of high school. We moved in for the weekend to drink beer and be young. That night, a Friday, Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Houston Rockets and the New York Knicks played on a muted television in the corner of the family room while we listened to music too loud and ignored the neighbors’ warnings. People came by. At some point, someone pointed at the TV. There was a white SUV racing slowly along a highway. We would have thought nothing of it, if it hadn’t interrupted a live sporting event. We turned on the sound. And, like much of the rest of North America, we watched Al Cowlings plodding along in the now infamous white Bronco, O.J. Simpson hiding in the back with a gun, chased by what seemed like the entire LA police force. It was odd. It was surreal. It was narrated by Tom Brokaw. We had no idea what would come next, that what would follow would define the late 90s, and change the way we, as a culture, fed on celebrity.

My memory of the year that followed is confused by time and media saturation. I recall watching most of the trial, as CNN played it and nothing but it all day. I remember watching much of it from the campus pub at Carleton University or in a friend’s apartment, as we skipped our first-year university classes, got high, ate pizza, and marveled at the spectacle of celebrity and the judicial system. The trial became a show unto itself, a dramedy set in the L.A. world of glitz and celebrity, drugs and debauchery, money and mayhem.

People who were not celebrities, who lived not for the spotlight nor were given to accomplishment deserving of that spotlight, were suddenly household names. Lance Ito, Mark Furhman, Roberts Shapiro and Kardashian, Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, Johnnie Cochran et al. Kato Kaelin was a homeless surfer. Greta Van Susteren was simply a lawyer who answered a CNN producer’s phone call one morning. Suddenly they were household names. They were given a voice. The cast of characters was endless, and it seemed odd even then that I would know the names of these people, let alone the intimate minutiae of their lives, let alone spend every day with them, or CNN.

The People v. O.J. Simpson willfully subscribes to the injustice of celebrity worship. The series celebrates the virtues of fame, evidenced in allowing Kris Jenner and the Kardashian brood an unwarranted part of the narrative. Perhaps this is some sort of high satire of the culture that was born of the Simpson trial, but I refuse to give the series that much credit. The series had an opportunity to take the “trial of the century” and use it as a platform to discuss what it meant in terms of media, race, celebrity, justice, and the American dream. The series is guilty of a first-year creative writing class crime: telling and not showing. It concerns itself with grand monologues, that reveal character and narrative. Perhaps in the mid-nineties California lawyers were known for their soliloquies, but it comes across as false and lazy writing, like a voiceover in place of exposition. The People v. O.J. Simpson is also given to contrived moments, like in episode 5 when during opening statements co-prosecutor Bill Hodgman has a heart attack, which never happened. Why embellish what’s already shocking?

An entire episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” which concerns itself with Clark’s aesthetic and her challenges as a woman in a male-dominated environment, misses a chance to indict a culture that treats workingwomen as second class citizens. In a disproportionate number of scenes, she’s crying or swooning over Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden, which I suppose is intended to elicit sympathy and enrich her character but instead comes across as a sexist depiction of an accomplished and intelligent woman. Sarah Paulson’s performance as Clark does its best with the material she’s given, but The People v. O.J. Simpson’s writers are intent on blaming Clark’s incompetence on gender. The focus is on her fragile character (which doesn’t seem believable), her struggles as a single mother in the midst of a custody battle, and her crush on Darden. And her hair. Six episodes in and we’re on her third hair style, and while Clark’s hair was certainly tabloid fodder during the trial, a more ambitious series would have moved past what we already knew from watching CNN and lingering in the grocery store checkout aisle. Don’t attach gender to the conversation; attack the media that continues to unnecessarily and offensively make that attachment.

The obstacles the series gives to Clark are all domestic, while Darden gets intellectual challenges. A perfect juxtaposition is in how they’re challenged as attorneys. Clark asks for a recess to go home to her children; Darden asks for Simpson to try on the infamous glove for the jury, which hurt the prosecution and gave birth to the trial’s catch phrase, Cochran’s: “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit.” There’s no way that in 1994, Marcia Clark, as a woman, was able to rise to her level of prominence in her vocation by being as fragile as the series suggests.

Clark’s true challenge was the insurmountable obstacle she faced in Simpson’s “Dream Team” of attorneys, the power of his celebrity, and the impossible spectacle that their union produced. The series is guilty of what its real-life characters were guilty of during the trial and the era, and what we’re still guilty of today: reducing women to elements of aesthetic and gender. Clark is more than a woman with a law degree. The series uses her chain smoking and drinking to make her “one of the boys”, but these are easy devices. It questions the media that would comment on her conservative attire, but celebrates that same media in giving narrative attention to the Kardashians. The contradictions get in the way of the performances, and what’s left is a disappointing dissemination of an important moment in our cultural evolution.

The flaws in the series are all tied to its inability to indict celebrity, a root cause of the prosecution’s own failures, as if it’s nervous to offend. In casting the series with well-known actors, The People v. O. J. Simpson becomes its own victim of celebrity. Prominent performers are given to camp performances as if in some form of self-parody. John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) eats scenes like a termite infestation. David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) says “Juice” so many times I fear an undead Michael Keaton’s going to appear on a sandworm. Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey) looks ready to burst into Albert Goldman. Writing that makes Dan Brown sound like Emily Dickinson does not help the performers. It’s difficult to endure Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s O.J. blurting out, “Oh my god, Nicole has been killed? Oh my god, is she dead?” or Schwimmer delivering “OJ, come on, please, do not kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom” without weeping for the future of the written word. Courtney B. Vance’s monologues make Joe Morton’s Scandal performance seem subdued. Connie Britton has an all too brief appearance as Faye Resnick, whose lingering celebrity as a result of her exploiting her friendship with Brown Simpson has given her a career. Britton’s Resnick would have been an interesting lens through which to filter the story and our celebrity obsession, but instead, the The People v. O.J. Simpson wonders if Kimmy’s ok.

The show is all spectacle and very little substance. Perhaps that’s its intent, to mimic the absurdity of its source material, but a story that is such a part of the fabric of our culture, it would have been far more interesting and appealing in the hands of, say, Noah Hawley (Fargo) than Ryan Murphy (GleeAmerican Horror Story), who’s a producer on the series and directed several episodes. Murphy’s style, which has its proponents, is one of exhibition over exposition, which works in musicals and horror stories, but not so well when the purpose of a series is to critically explore a crucial moment in American history.

But, like the trial itself, I can’t stop watching. It has made me guilty of the crimes I condemn. I’ve become obsessed with the series’ glorification of everything I hate, by circumstance rather than design. And in revisiting the trial, I’m left to revisit myself by way of nostalgia. Did I really waste that much of my life watching this train wreck of injustice? Is this why I got kicked out of university the first time? Is it weird that I know that Evan Handler was in Frogmen AND The People v. O.J. Simpson?

It’s possible that the series could redeem itself in its final episodes, just as it’s possible Travolta’s hair will grow back. The series could have been an interesting conversation about obsession, about the failings of contemporary journalism, about racism, about sexism, about corruption, about the incompetence of the legal system, about how in twenty-two years very little has changed besides haircuts and technology. Instead, it comes across as a prequel to Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among others, and contributes to MTV’s PLAY with AJHe is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare Books, 2008) and Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press, 2011), and the co-author of Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out Hockey Player (Found Press, 2013). Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.