The Juice: A Fresh Take on the O.J. Simpson Trial
By Amanda Rossenrode
I will admit, I thought American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson was going to be a train wreck. I didn’t really trust a sensitive depiction of a real-life incident from the man who brought us whatever the holy hell was going on in American Horror Story: Freak Show. I liked Murder House, was entertained but confused by Asylum, and didn’t really care about Coven. When the power went out during the season finale of Freak Show, it took me a year to get around to watching the rest of the episode. The inconceivable twists and character 180s were vexing, interesting storylines abandoned in favor of more time for his darlings to ham it up with ridiculous accents. What he would do with real-life characters, many of whom are still alive, was beyond me.
To my surprise, Ryan Murphy is doing a superb job with The People v. OJ Simpson and it is currently my favorite show on television. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the veteran The Walking Dead, which is dragging its feet through a redundant season about capturing another settlement (Quit doing that Rick! It never ends well!), and Better Call Saul, which I had high hopes for, but find my mind wandering during scenes that don’t have Mike in them. The actors in ACS (some of whom I thought would be ridiculous in their roles, many of whom didn’t resemble the real life people in the stills released before the premiere) bring the characters to life with so much energy and nuance that you quickly put aside any difference in physical appearance. Sarah Paulson, who hadn’t impressed me since her small role as the psychic on Murder House, should be nominated for an Emmy for her performance as prosecutor Marcia Clark. She brings a vulnerability to the character that makes you feel ashamed of all the jokes and parodies at Clark’s expense in the nineties.
In the post-Law and Order era of television, which dominated the airwaves for more than two decades and was rife with “ripped from the headlines” reenactments of major cases, why is this show so fascinating? Is it the case itself? There were multiple TV movies and news specials and tell-all books released in the years after the trial (the show itself is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of his Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson). Law and Order even did a rare three-part arc that mirrored the Simpson case. Why is this retelling so addicting? Perhaps it’s the recent passion for nostalgia. Social networking feeds are bloated with “90’s kids will remember” memes (Haha! Remember Doug and Tamagotchi’s?) and 90’s kids remember the O.J. trial. It was one of the “where were you” moments of our generation. During the Bronco chase, Domino’s pizza delivered more pizza than during the Super Bowl. The trial verdict was even announced over the intercom in my elementary school. My classroom exploded, a bunch of nine-year-olds loudly voicing dissenting opinions on a complex, racially charged murder case. Because that case had been on for months, in all of our homes. Our parents went about their business with the court case on in the background, becoming legal analysts in their own right. And we absorbed it all. We saw the crime scene pictures in check stand tabloids and we all felt more grown up by taking an interest in it.
I say interest, but not understanding. I listened to the debates between my parents and their friends, but to me, there was a childish simplicity to the stated evidence. I couldn’t comprehend the need for debate. If the glove didn’t fit then it wasn’t his, right? Fifteen years of Law and Order and seven years working as a paralegal has shown me the difference between what can and cannot be presented as evidence in a legal proceeding. Part of the charm of the show is that it disavows what we as kids, who have barely thought of the trial in years, held to be fact. In a delightful scene from episode seven, Clark uses shot glasses to explain to patrons at a bar the timeline of the night of the murder and the collection of evidence by the LAPD and the improbability of the police tampering evidence. In contrast, the recent docu-series “Making a Murderer” patiently explained how much time the police in that case had with the supposed crime scene and the evidence that was collected. Murphy and Co. use a surgeon’s scalpel to open up a case we thought we already knew and dissects it before our eyes to our gruesome fascination.
To the show’s credit, they do not seem to be taking the direction of proving or disproving Simpson’s guilt. They rely on Toobin’s work as a journalist at the time and, much like any case, present the evidence. Though much of the evidence that did not make the headlines seems to damn Simpson, there are multiple theories out there (some make more sense than others) that lean towards him, not as the killer, but perhaps as someone who knew the truth about slayings, either before or after the crime. According to IMDB, Cuba Gooding does a take of each scene playing O.J. as guilty or innocent and both guilty and innocent scenes are interspersed throughout the show, further muddying up a murky case that may never be definitively solved.
In the end, the show feels like a character study of very real people thrust into the public eye. This was the dawn of reality TV and a newly voyeuristic America devoured this case, breathlessly watching a soap-opera unfold before their eyes. But these were human beings and ACS depicts them as fragile entities rather than the clownish caricatures portrayed in the media at the time (anyone remember the “Dancing Itos”?). Unlike the actual trial, it is not about proving a man’s guilt. It is about the enormous impact the trial had on the lives of the people involved and the people that watched. Police corruption, racial tension in Los Angeles at the time, and the dawn of the 24-hour news channels and the friggin Kardashians. Murphy and his crew manage to handle it with a respect and a regret that we, the audience, couldn’t do so twenty years earlier. Also, best use of Seal’s “Kiss by a Rose” since Community’s Jeff and The Dean karaoke version.
If you’re not watching the show, watch it. In the wake of the armchair detectives that loved “Making a Murderer”, it is imperative that this case be part of the conversation about the American justice system.