New Television — From the June 2016 issue

New Television

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The new docudrama The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX) isn’t really about Orenthal James Simpson. It’s about the trials that ran alongside his — those informal, unboundaried, court-of-public-opinion trials in which evidence was heard for and against the murder victims, the defense and the prosecution, the judge, the jury, and the Los Angeles Police Department, to say nothing of white and black America. History has freed us from suspense about Simpson’s verdict, so that the man himself (played here by Cuba Gooding Jr.) is less the tragic hero he seemed in the mid-Nineties than a curiously minor character. He comes to the center of our attention only once, in Episode 2, at the end of the lengthy Ford Bronco chase scene — which in real life was followed by a surreal cavalcade of police cars and media helicopters, as well as an estimated 95 million live viewers — when Simpson repeatedly, and with apparent sincerity, apologizes for taking up so much of so many people’s time. It is an uncannily ordinary moment of social decorum, a sort of could-you-please-pass-the-salt gesture on a sinking Titanic, in which Simpson briefly becomes more than just an archetype.

Stills from The Simpson Verdict, by Kota Ezawa. Courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York City

Stills from The Simpson Verdict, by Kota Ezawa. Courtesy the artist and Murray Guy, New York City

Cue, then, the other players. Or rather, the other people we kept forgetting weren’t merely players. The People v. O. J. Simpson reminds us that the Simpson case became so obscured by symbolism and public emotion that even the dead — Nicole Brown Simpson, O. J.’s ex-wife, and her friend Ronald Goldman — were assessed for their likability. “Our focus group rated the participants on a scale of one to ten based on how much sympathy they felt,” an analyst reports to the defense team at one point. “Nicole scored sevens, fives, and a three. . . . One term came up a lot: ‘gold digger.’ ”

Both the prosecution and the defense conducted this sort of research in order to determine which jurors were, demographically, most likely to be persuaded to convict or acquit. In Episode 4, in a process that resembles test marketing for a new soft drink (or television show), a room of strangers is shown clips of the key figures in the trial and asked for their impressions. The lowest marks go to Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor (played with subtlety by Sarah Paulson), a perfectly fine-behaving, fine-looking lawyer in perfectly fine clothes, whose appearance — unlike that of the mostly overweight and unattractive alpha men on the defense team — became a national obsession. The focus group gives Clark an average score of four, making comments such as “She seems like a bitch,” “She acts like everybody’s stupid,” and “I wouldn’t want to be her boyfriend.” (“Hello, Hillary!” the show all but says.)

The media are even pettier, providing little in the way of actual legal analysis. In one scene, Clark comes home just in time to overhear someone on the television news saying: “This is not a look; this is a cry for help.” In another scene, she walks into a grocery store and sees a rack of newspapers, each with variations on the headline guilty below photos of her new hairstyle.

by Kota EzawaNaturally, the highest likability scores go to the wealthy, good-looking celebrity. “I don’t know what you guys are cheering for,” Christopher Darden, Clark’s assistant (Sterling K. Brown), says as his neighbors, watching the Bronco chase during a backyard barbecue, root for Simpson. “O. J. is local,” one responds. “He went to Galileo High.” “So what?” says Darden. “O. J. never gave back. Well, you see any parks around here? Any children’s centers? . . . Once O. J. made his money, he split and never came back. He became white.” Laughing, one of the neighbors answers, “Well, he got the cops chasing him — he’s black now.”

The People v. O. J. Simpson, which opens with footage of the crowded streets of Los Angeles after the officers who brutally beat Rodney King were acquitted of assault in 1992, resonates with the police shootings of unarmed black men that fill the news today. With its lens shifting from the courtroom to the newsroom to people’s back yards, the series evokes the way in which, for a brief, delusory moment, the O. J. verdict seemed to deliver justice for all black men. During the trial, the defense team holds several news conferences in which they make the compelling, if fudgy, case that their client is simply another victim of a racist police force. There are shots of crowds rallying behind a fleeing Simpson at highway overpasses with signs of go oj and the juice is loose.

The most straightforwardly villainous character in the show is police officer Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale), the detective who investigated Brown and Goldman’s murders, and who was caught on tape saying, among other things, “People don’t want niggers in their town. People don’t want Mexicans. . . . And any way you can do to get them out is fine with them.” Although Fuhrman was later charged with perjury for his testimony in the Simpson trial (he pleaded no contest), he’s since had his record expunged, and is now a regular guest on Fox News. Some people just have a strong TV presence.

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