Monday, April 4, 2016

The People vs. O.J. Simpson is peak television and we will be poorer for its absence

I can't believe it's been more than 20 years.

I remember the shock as the murders were reported. "His ex-wife's dead? They don't think he was involved, do they?" I remember returning from a Friday evening screening of CITY SLICKERS 2: THE LEGEND OF CURLY'S GOLD and being mesmerized at the hours-long slow-speed chase unfolding on an LA freeway.

The speculation about if a sealed envelope held a murder weapon, the "gavel-to-gavel" coverage that was so insatiable that even the E! network carried the trial live each day, Jay Leno being interviewed by Extra about how "It was 'bald detective theater' for a while there" until Kato's testimony was made for entertaining viewing, Marcia Clark making fun of F. Lee Bailey's hand size, the case nearly reducing Judge Ito to tears, the glove demonstration, "if it doesn't fit, you must acquit,"watching the verdict live in school.

I remember it all.

The O.J. Simpson murder trial is a circus that is on the verge of being 22 years old. Even if you're graduating college, you're not old enough to remember this as it happened. That's astonishing to me. Something so far shouldn't feel so fresh. Even trial soundbites that haven't passed into popular culture are still crystal clear in my memory, right down to the angles from the locked down in-court camera.

Which is not to say I haven't revisited the trial since it ended in 1995. Quite the opposite. Here's how much of a fascination the case was to me - when Kim Kardashian's sex tape put her on the map, my association with her was not "Who?" or "Paris Hilton's friend?" It was, "Is she related to Bob Kardashian, O.J.'s close friend?"

To the best of my memory, I've read at least eight, probably more, books about the trial: Christopher Darden's book, Robert Shapiro's book, a book written by a booted juror, Vincent Bugliosi's Outrage: The Five Reasons O.J. Simpson Got Away with Murder, Mark Fuhrman's book, Lawrence Schiller's incomparable American Tragedy, O.J.'s self-serving account If I Did It, and Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of his Life. The latter forms the basis for what is possibly the best show currently on television: American Crime Story: The People vs O.J. Simpson.

Between my memory and my own reading, I'm pretty well-equipped to call bullshit on the miniseries, or at least the elements that occurred in public view. For all the younger viewers whose first real exposure to the case is ACS, let me assure you - this is how it happened. There are occasional concessions to dramatic license but this is remarkably faithful to the trial narrative, with the added benefit of taking us inside the heads of the people who lived it. It's an effect not unlike that of reading all of those books, an individual who seems harsh and unlikable when you're following one thread of the narrative gains new dimensions and empathy when we see what they're dealing with behind the scenes.

I don't know if it's possible to oversell the degree of difficulty that series creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are playing at here. Hell, I don't even know if it's possible to put into words how Herculean a task they've set for themselves here. This is a miniseries where every major character is fleshed out - with a pretty deep bench on each side of the trial. This isn't the case where they picked one specific protagonist and attempted to filter everything through that perspective. This is not "Marcia Clark's story of the trial" or "Johnnie Cochran's story," or "Bob Shapiro's story" or "Chris Darden's" or "Bob Kardashian's." It's ALL of theirs. At any point, each one of those players can be called from the bench to headline an episode as if it was their show all along - and for those moments, they are the lead character.

True ensemble writing like that is rare. Most network shows today are built around a single complex protagonists, maybe a close second lead, and a lot of supporting characters. (think THE BLACKLIST or BLIND SPOT. On cable, imagine BREAKING BAD, BETTER CALL SAUL and that ilk) In the instances where there is an ensemble cast, if you don't have someone who's first among equals (Mariska Hargitay on L&O: SVU), you're likely to have a show that feels full of supporting players taking turns in the spotlght.

My general point is that with 90% of TV writing, there tends to be one star that all the other players orbit. The gravity from that star tends to pull in the lion's share of story space and screen time. They're the focus. TPVOJS doesn't disperse its story that way. One week, the coaches might throw Marcia Clark in to start the game. The next week it's "Cochran! You're up!" And even as I'm laying this out, I still feel like I'm making it sound easy. Consider for a moment how few series are capable of that. Now imagine trying to write it. Have you ever written a script with more than a half-dozen fleshed out agendas? Pretty easy to crash that plane, isn't it?

I can't forget the performers who've done an exceptional job of channeling their real-life counterparts. I remember well all the criticisms that Marcia Clark faced while the trial was ongoing. Some were fair - I think she and Darden made some serious mistakes. Other attacks were less warrented. As silly as it probably seems to younger viewers, yes, her hair really was that big of a deal. More than a few writers covering the trial made a point of referring to Clark as harsh. There's a focus group scene in an early ep where participants say that they think Clark is "a bitch." I don't know if that specific event happened that particular way, but it absolutely encapsulates the media portrayal of Clark and the conversation that surrounded her.

Watching the series gave me a bit more empathy for Clark than I had before. We're allowed to see a more vulnerable side of her than the trial presented and the result is a little more understanding for the strain of trying this case while the media and even the judge seem to be handing every advantage to the defendant. Maybe because of the larger contexts that surrounded this trial there really was no way to win. That doesn't totally excuse some prosecution blunders for me, but it does make them understandable. Sarah Paulson does incredible work in really making the audience feel for Clark.

(Their big mistake always seemed to be hanging Fuhrman out to dry, because once they did, it compromised so much of their case. I get that Clark was concerned that defending him could make the prosecution look like apologists for an allegedly racist cop, but I'd rather go down swinging rather than hand the defense an easy "See? Even the prosecutors think the guy who found most of their evidence is toxic!" narrative. Vincent Bugliosi's book definitely has the benefit of being the Monday Morning Quarterback, but he makes a lot of compelling arguments about where the prosecution let the defense control this case.)

No conversation about the acting on this show would be complete without discussing Courtney B. Vance, whose performance as Johnnie Cochran is uncanny. Coming at it from the perspective that O.J.'s guilt isn't really in question, I found a lot of Cochran's theatrics disingenuous and offensive. He and F. Lee Bailey were the two slickest snakes in a complete pack of them and one reason I never read either of their books is that I had zero interest in hearing them justify their slimy gameplay.

Vance finds a humanity in Johnnie Cochran that I wasn't sure was there. He looks like him, he sounds like him and he immediately becomes the strongest presence in the room. You totally understand how this guy could command a courtroom and how he makes his story sound like the better story, especially contrasted with Clark's energy. Maybe it's the fact that watching this as a TV drama makes it easier to process the case purely in terms of winning or losing rather than being about punishing the guilty, but you find yourself respecting the lengths he goes to to do his job, which is getting his client off.

Here's a small example: at one point in the trial Cochran smears all the police detectives and accuses them of taking part in an elaborate, racially driven conspiracy to frame O.J. Simpson. It's an absurd and outrageous accusation for many reason - many of which Clark outlines better in a barroom debate than she does in court. Shapiro is incensed at Cochran for making the cops out to be bad guys. You can attribute that to him having relationships with some in the police department, or you could take it as an example of contrasting attitudes that blacks and whites have towards the police.

And so, as in real life, Shapiro wears a Fraternal Order of Police lapel pin to court for at least one day, possibly more. It didn't go unnoticed by the media back then, and the episode shows us that that Cochran didn't let it slide either. Here's the funny thing - when this happened in real life, I remember respecting the hell out of Shapiro for doing it. The defense seemed to be living down to every sleazy stereotype of defense attorneys by putting forth this ridiculous conspiracy theory.

But in the world of the show? I had a brief moment of "Shapiro, what the hell are you doing?! You've completely stabbed your team in the back!" That's how good the writing is - it gets you caught up in both agendas, to the point where you start thinking about it like the defense - just in terms of winning at all costs. Then, when the focus shifts back to the prosecution, you find yourself pulled into their plight.

Central to that plight in the last couple of episodes is Chris Darden. As the lone black face on the prosecution team, Darden had to deal with the unfairness of being branded a race traitor by helping bring the case against O.J. Simpson. Cochran never missed a chance to fan those flames either. As a trial watcher, I didn't have much respect for Darden. His highest-profile moments were strategic blunders and he was easily baited by Cochran into either losing his cool or making tactically foolish moves.

Sterling K. Brown's performance has turned Darden into the one of the most quietly sympathetic people in the courtroom. You find yourself trying to will him to not fall into the latest defense trap, or for Marcia to heed his words when he's bringing her an unwanted truth. Brown's handed some really excellent writing and he runs it into the endzone every time. The previous few weeks have seen him become a volcano of frustration on the verge of erupting, and the explosion finally comes when Cochran pushes him too far in open court. It's a bit like seeing a bullied kid snap and try to bludgeon his attacker's face - you don't know whether to cheer or be horrified.

The other memorable moment in that episode comes when he takes Clark to task for not listening to his misgivings about Fuhrman. He doesn't pull any punches, saying "You wanted a black face, but the truth is you never wanted a black voice." The nine episodes that led up to that moment have given Darden so much depth, and so much justification for that perspective that those few words hit like a body blow.

Another quiet storm has been David Schwimmer's Robert Kardashian. Kardashian was a close friend of Simpson's. In fact, if the show is to be believed, his kids called O.J. "Uncle Juice." Kardashian early on finds it impossible to entertain the idea that O.J. could have killed Nicole. He's the best friend we all hope to have if we're accused of murder. He's utterly certain that O.J. is innocent... But Kardashian also has the misfortune of being part of the defense team and the front row seat to the strategy meetings soon expose an uncomfortable truth. The defense might have plenty of elaborate stories to undermine the evidence, but what they lack is any real evidence of another killer.

At one point he wonders, when are they going to figure out who really did it? His naivete would be pathetic if it wasn't so heartbreaking. He believed in O.J. and each day he's in there he's got a front row seat to how there is no other credible explanation that fits the facts. One beautifully suspenseful moment underlines where his faith is shaken. Realizing a bag O.J. gave him to keep could conceivably hold the murder weapon or bloody clothes, Kardashian decides he has to know the truth. He calls up O.J.'s friend Al Cowlings to bear witness as he opens the bag. He does so and finds.... nothing.

Cowlings gives a laugh of relief, one that gives us the sense that he feared they MIGHT find incriminating evidence and is now convinced O.J. didn't do it. Kardashian looks sick, though. For him, it's not about what he did or didn't find - it's the admission to himself that the emotions he felt mean he's no longer sure that "Uncle Juice is a good man." I didn't know Schwimmer had it in him.

I'm rather at a loss for how to adequately describe John Travolta's interpretation of Robert Shapiro. The guy he's playing on-screen doesn't really look like or feel like the Robert Shapiro we saw in interviews and trial coverage. While virtually the entire rest of the cast has tried to channel their real-life counterparts, Travolta is some sort of bizarro, pompous avatar of the man who formed the Dream Team. I don't even know how to explain it, but it works. There are the occasional moments where the show indulges in a sort of campier tone (don't get me started on Connie Britton), and in the hands of less capable creators, these would be discordant notes. Perhaps it's because he's up against characters who were already flamboyant and larger-than-life in reality, but Travolta's voice blends perfectly into the chorus. The few moments when he sticks out like a sore thumb then work because of the oddity, ala Peter Brady's cracking singing voice, not in spite of them.

Maybe the next most gonzo casting is Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey. I was fully prepared for Lane to make Bailey a caricature, but I neglected to realize how much of a pompous echo of his glory days that Bailey already was during the trial. Lane modulates his performance, but his stage theatrics fit the role of this former courtroom showman, well, like a glove.

There's no other way to put it than to say that THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON is a master class in writing compelling television. I'm finding I have to stop myself from rambling further and describing even more of my favorite scenes. Virtually every scene on this show is built from the stuff that all writers should strive to write. I'd kill to write scenes that are so dense with human drama and conflict. If I had the time, I could probably do four weeks worth of posts just on this show. I can't imagine we'll see a better written, better acted, better directed series on television this season, and certainly not one at this degree of difficulty.

1 comment:

  1. All 10 of these will be saved in my DVR for a long, long time. I've already re-watched several.

    You're right, it's amazing on so many levels...thanks for this post. Thanks also for the links to fact-check articles on your Twitter feed the following day. Those served almost like an annotated guide.

    It was far from a weak episode, but the one that covered the Bronco chase was far less compelling that the real events.

    If you haven't seen it yet, you need to watch Brett Morgen's ESPN documentary, JUNE 17, 1994. It covers the day of the chase and does so with no voice-over or cut-away interviews. It's news coverage, raw video and the 911 tapes between Simpson and the LAPD while he's on the highway with a gun that are used to tell the story. 911 tapes that would not be admitted into court, by the way.

    I appreciate your take on this show.

    I'm only left wondering now, having liked CITY SLICKERS but not having seen its sequel, was CURLY'S GOLD any good?