The O.J. Simpson trial gripped America in 1995. It was an L.A. noir mystery fuelled with fame, celebrity, class, and race… but in the end there wasn’t much of a murder mystery, just retribution for years of police mistreatment in the black community. While the trial didn’t have many twists or turns, reversals or red herrings, it’s estimated that 150 million people watched the televised verdict. Why? It was America’s first glimpse of reality TV. And the third-rate Hollywood soap opera didn’t disappoint. According to prosecutor Marcia Clark, “The networks were getting hate-mail letters because people’s soap operas were being interrupted for the Simpson trial. But then what happened was the people who liked soap operas got addicted to the Simpson trial. And they got really upset when the Simpson trial was over, and people would come up to me on the street and say, ‘God, I loved your show.’ ”
FX’s new ten-part miniseries “American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” is as addictive as the original story. Watching an episode is like taking a bite of one of Proust’s madeleine cakes and journeying back to the fin de siècle days before social media, before Paris Hilton, “The Hills,” “Survivor,” and all the other ready-made celebrity TV shows that gave us a voyeuristic kick. The O.J. Simpson trial was the prototype. While the story still has a lurid, train wreck quality, being twenty years removed from the original events allows producer Ryan Murphy and his team of writers the chance to fuse the series with modern parallels. Here are 10 reasons why you should tune in.
10. Because something is Wrong with the Criminal Justice System
The O.J. Simpson trial was about race, fame and class, and “American Crime Story” examines how those components twist and pervert the criminal justice system. O.J’s lawyers debate whether or not the N-word should be used on the stand, and phrases like “downtown dialect” and “optics” (a fancy word for skin tone) are tossed about. Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman become footnotes in a trial about race relations in America. Netflix’s “Making a Murderer” isn’t about race; it’s about corruption, police misconduct, and an impoverished suspect with little or no education. But like “American Crime Story” it seeks to highlight the flaws and fissures in the criminal justice system. The flaws and fissures are different, but the system is still broken.
9. Because You forgot all about Bruno Magli Shoes
“I would never wear that ugly-a$$ shoe.” That’s what O.J. Simpson said when an FBI Special Agent matched 18 features on the shoes Simpson wore in a photograph taken at a Buffalo Bills game to the shoe print found at the murder site. This was no ordinary shoe, either; it was an upscale, suede lace-up by Bruno Magli. At the time, only 299 pairs of the shoe had been sold in the U.S. in Simpson’s size 12. However, sales of Bruno Magli spiked in the U.S. after the trial.
8. Because You’re Culpable in Creating a Celebrity Culture
The O.J. Simpson case is often called the first reality TV show. Regularly scheduled programs were interrupted, one network after another, to cut to a white, 1993 Ford Bronco driven by a Pro Football Hall of Famer racing down the California freeway –police cars in pursuit. Supporters actually lined overpasses in Compton and Inglewood to cheer the Bronco on.
This was America’s first glimpse of Guy Debord’s society of spectacle, and we all tuned in. We were complicit. Would the Hall of Famer shoot himself with the .357 Magnum he had pointed at his temple? Today, this sort of new coverage is commonplace. Isn’t this what the “People” in the title of the miniseries is referring to? We watched the Bronco. We watched the trial. And in the end, we’re culpable in creating a celebrity culture.
7. Because You’re a Millennial
How will millennials react to “The People vs. O.J. Simpson?” Are they familiar with the players? Will those under 30 tune in to FX for the ten-part series? Do they know that fame for the Kardashian family began 22 years ago and not with Kim’s leaked sex tape? (Her father, pictured, was O.J.’s defense attorney). While many millennials have a hazy understanding of what took place in 1994-95, they probably weren’t part of the estimated 95 million Americans watching the live coverage of the Bronco, or the trial on Court TV. Chances are they were watching Nickelodeon. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” WTF?
6. Because the Acting is Excellent
“American Crime” Story is nuanced and well acted. While it’s easy to compare this sort of “Not Guilty” pleasure to a Lifetime movie, the ensemble cast is superb. According to the New Yorker, John Travolta plays Robert Shapiro as “an Easter Island head of fatuousness, trailing famous names like bread crumbs.” Sarah Paulson, a Murphy regular, plays prosecutor Marcia Clark as if she “longs to be an avenging angel.” According to the Guardian, the weakest link in the cast is Cuba Gooding Jr. in the role of O.J. Whether that’s because he’s surrounded by an array of eccentric performances, or because, as the Guardian suggests, “he is neither as attractive, as charismatic or as good an actor as O.J. Simpson himself” is up for debate.
5. Because the Music is Darkly Comic
Ryan Murphy uses music in inspired and unexpected ways. If his shows have plot holes, he plugs them with songs worthy of a college radio station. Hotel featured several deep cuts, from Bauhaus and New Order to Stone Roses and She Wants Revenge. Watch an episode of “Nip/Tuck” and chances are “Cuts like a Knife,” by Bryan Adams, plays during one of McNamara and Troy’s plastic surgery procedures. “American Crime Story” uses music in a darkly comic way, too. When O.J. races down the California freeway in his Bronco, chased by a squad of police cars, The Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” pounds on the soundtrack. Later, L.L. Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out” is heard during the not-guilty verdict.
4. Because there are Modern Parallels
Like the assassination of JFK and 9/11, people remember where they were when O.J’s controversial verdict was read. Still, “American Crime Story” isn’t a nineties period piece. From the Cosby scandal and Black Lives Matter to the racial earthquakes that continue to rock the U.S. today –the death of Michael Brown, Eric Garner –Ryan Murphy is exploring more than just the Simpson case. He seems to be asking: how did the Trial of the Century help forge the nation’s obsession with race, fame, money, and celebrity.
3. Because it Features one of the Most Ironic Lines… Ever
O.J. and Nicole Brown Simpson were close friends with the Kardashian family. In fact, the families were so close that in a 2009 interview with Dr. Phil, Kim said she called the Simpsons Uncle O.J. and Aunt Nicole. At the time, Robert Kardashian was the most famous of the “Keeping Up” clan and part of O.J.’s legal team. There’s a scene in the FX series when Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and his four children are eating at L.A.’s ChinChin restaurant. “We are Kardashians,” Robert says. “And in this family being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
2. Because the O.J. Simpson Case is a Real American Horror Story
“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” is produced by Ryan Murphy, the hotshot auteur who brought us “Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “Scream Queens,” and “American Horror Story.” Murphy’s shows are polarizing. What starts out promising often devolves into sensationalism and button-pushing camp; no sane TV critic would find any merit in the last few seasons of “Nip-Tuck,” and “Scream Queens” should have been left to die on the studio floor.
Murphy pushes the limits of television (and good taste), but he often doesn’t know what to do once he’s pushed those limits. Emily Nassbum, a TV critic for the New Yorker, sums it up best: “For years, he’s been notorious for constructing fabulous plots, then driving his inventions off a cliff. Characters get assassinated, literally and figuratively. Sly winks become grand-mal seizures.” The only thing horrific about Hotel, the latest addition of “American Horror Story,” is that Lady Gaga beat Kirsten Dunst (Fargo) for Best Actress in a Limited Series at the Golden Globes.
1. Because True Crime Stories are all the Rage
“American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” arrives on the heels of “Making a Murderer,” the ten-part Netflix documentary that examines the 2007 conviction of Steven Avery, the Wisconsin man charged with murdering 25-year old Teresa Halbach. Avery insists he didn’t commit the crime and was framed by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. Netflix doesn’t talk numbers, but the series has captured the attention of the masses, with chatter spreading on social media and 24-hour news networks. While true crime shows like “Dateline,” “48 Hours,” and “America’s Most Wanted” have always attracted amateur sleuths, in the past two years the canon has grown in prestige, first with “Serial,” which revisited the case of Adnan Syed, and then with “The Jinx,” a six-part HBO series that sought to implicate Robert Durst.