people v oj

I love FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. I love how each episode has its own theme, but the larger narrative keeps bearing down on the characters. I love their dramatic reactions to being caught in the largest drama of their lives. I love every minute of it.

I hated the actual The People v. O.J. Simpson. I ignored almost every minute of it. I never heard the word “Kardashian” until 2007. The trial and surrounding mishegoss struck me as inescapably sad, and not only because tawdry accusations and revelations were happening because, and yet obscured, the fact that two innocent people had been slain.

If you are enjoying this FX series as much as I am, I heartily recommend you read Emily Nussbaum’s review in The New Yorker and Dennis Bingham’s weekly recaps. Nussbaum gets the big picture right, Bingham atomizes the brilliance week by week.

I’ll just add to them that I feel that producer Ryan Murphy and writers Scott Alexander and Larry Kraszewski have made an O.J.-trial saga for skeptics like myself. For me, the O.J. saga was no mere unfortunate episode, but a breaking of America: from the sober, self-interrogating seriousness of those first post-Cold War years into a series of tabloid-ready pseudo-events. Or as I put it two years ago (sure, I’ll quote myself at length; Ross Douthat does it):

[B]ecause Simpson chose not to shoot himself that day, because Simpson chose not to make himself one more black male casualty (from Rodney to Rwanda), [we] were stuck with O.J. as inescapable valve and value for the next 16 months…the O.J. trial both reflected and changed a nation.

Make no mistake: we were the United States of O.J. from June 1994 to October 1995 – our days outside our own lives barely went beyond Judge Ito, Kato Kaelin, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Mark Fuhrman, Marcia Clark, Christopher Durden, the Goldman family, the Brown family, etc. etc. Any time you tried to tune it out (personally, I left the country), it was right back in your face. O.J. America encompassed every issue of our national identity – the original racist arguments against integration (oh no, our white blond women with black men?), special treatment for the best athletes, and the biggest tension between wealth and populism (if you’re rich enough, can you get away with murder?).

Unlike Kennedy Smith or the Menendez brothers or anything else, the story morphed from a blotter-page murder to a pseudo-event to something beyond Boorstin, beyond postmodernism: an imposed event in every American’s life, as close to them as losing or gaining a house or a spouse…O.J.-related news led every headline and the first five minutes of every broadcast for more than a year…The mainstream press Hard Copied itself – making Hard Copy itself obsolete and off the air in 1999. Court TV expanded; Judge Judy began in 1996.

What was the news media like after O.J.? It was paparazzi-based, to the point of (maybe) killing Princess Diana. It was Viagra and Titanic and a Tommy Lee-Pamela Anderson sex tape. In 1996, President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, ending the old public-airwaves-responsibility thing, directing the old media to new corporate priorities. Fox News started right up, and Rush Limbaugh and Howard Stern hit new national strides. And truly serious affairs – like the bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, like Kosovo in 1999 – didn’t seem as important as they would have in 1993. That’s why the Republicans were brilliant to set a perjury trap for Bill Clinton by forcing him to get on the videotaped record about Paula Jones. They didn’t know about Monica Lewinsky yet – if anything, they knew Clinton had proved scandal-bulletproof in 1992! But what they also knew was that post-O.J. America wasn’t 1992. If they could force the appearance of impropriety, they could trust the post-O.J. media to let any so-called scandal dominate headlines for months. They panned and struck gold with Lewinsky. Sure, Clinton wasn’t quite thrown out of office, but they certainly derailed the hell out of Clinton’s second term (outside of that whole budget-deficit-to-surplus thing)…

Linda Williams discuss[ed] the dual aftermaths of the King and Simpson trials: “black outrage at the 1991 [sic] ‘white’ verdict that found the police in the Rodney King beating not guilty ended in riots that left much of South Central L.A. decimated. White outrage at the 1995 ‘black’ verdict finding Simpson not guilty ended in a more law-abiding, but no less devastating, sort of indirect violence: the abandonment of the moral need to redress the wrongs of blacks, whether by voting for Newt Gingrich, moving away from the city, or ending affirmative action. [She means welfare reform.] In both cases, black people, and black neighborhoods, have suffered the more serious consequences.” When the news media turned to fluff and shouting, it left the gravitas of the early 90s behind, something that would only come back (in a more limited way) on a certain Tuesday in September 2001. When the Juice stayed loose, the networks and national papers loosened their standards, and in turn, all of ours. When O.J. refused to spill, they spilled away their own credibility from the old Walter Cronkite days. And that’s…the way it is.

But what I love about The People vs. O.J. Simpson is that on some subtextual level, it gets this, or at least it gets right the look on Marcia Clark’s and Christopher Darden’s faces as they realize that they’re bearing witness to, and partly midwifing, an awful, and awfully consequential, series of events in American life. Through the scrupulously excellent work of Sarah Paulson, as Clark, and Sterling K. Brown, as Darden, they look like people watching the slow-motion horror of 9/11 a mile away from the World Trade Center as though the event was taking a year.

It’s nice to know, through Bingham’s comparisons with Jeffrey Toobin’s source material, that Clark and Darden, along with several other principal characters, are treated far more sympathetically by the show than by the book. I love their chances at redemption. I’m not sure how much credit is due to who, but Ryan Murphy is emerging as one of TV’s most important artists of the 21st century. You’ve got these over-saturated, high-key visuals with a splashiness echoed in the editing – the filmmaking equivalent of saying “Here we ARRRE!” – combined with a spotlight on people who (often) don’t get much of a spotlight at all, whether it’s the non-hetero-normative types on Glee, the disenfranchised on American Horror Story, or The People on the surprisingly well-named The People v. O.J. Simpson. Murphy’s style, wherein a cockroach couldn’t hide, turns out to be the perfect way to break down types, to let people be vulnerable, to let characters connect with the audience.

Whatever he did to Ron and Nicole (I doubt it was any good), I still believe O.J. broke America in some sense. We went toward tabloids and away from the early 90s’ thoughtful inclusiveness (yes, including political correctness). However, after we got a lot of that out of our system in the late 90s, we grew up a little. After we started paying for a hundred channels, a few of them got good, for market imperatives if for no other reason. Some of these were HBO, AMC, and FX. And so it doesn’t actually seem that strange, in 2016, for FX to produce an exemplary serial about people behaving in less than exemplary ways. In a roundabout way, you could even call that a sort of cultural redemption.