1995: The year the future began
Last night’s second installment leaves little doubt: The 10-part FX cable miniseries about the infamous, mid-1990s O.J. Simpson double-murder case is crassly exploitative. Why else revisit a case in which the celebrity-suspect is popularly thought guilty of the grisly crimes he answered to at a flawed trial in 1995, a trial that ended with his beating the rap?
The episode last night dramatized the slow-speed police chase across southern California freeways on June 17, 1994, a bizarre saga that went on for hours, drew huge television audiences, and ended with Simpson’s negotiated surrender to Los Angeles police. The dramatization elevated, and even indirectly glamorized, the lawless conduct of Simpson, a former professional football star who in June 1994 attempted to flee (and contemplated suicide) rather than face the murder charges pending against him.
Of course, the miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, is no documentary treatment of a sensational murder case that unfolded to vast popular attention more than 20 years ago. It offers at least a faintly sympathetic portrayal of Simpson as a fallen hero, and seems mostly indifferent to the victims — as if the vicious killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were incidental to the trajectory of the miniseries. Goldman’s father, Fred, has said People v. O.J. Simpson seems to be “discounting both victims.”
I think he’s right.
Goldman, who routinely refers to Simpson as “the killer,” also said in a recent interview with an Arizona television station that he’s worried audiences “will get a producer’s version of a real-life event, dramatized for TV,” or what he also called “a lopsided version of history.”
Murder, he added, “is not entertainment.”
Goldman said he wants viewers “to know the savagery of that crime. I want people to know that Nicole was nearly decapitated. I want people to know that Ron was stabbed 30-some-odd times, including the jugular. I want people to know this was a vicious, horrible crime.”
Viewers really don’t get much of that in People v. O.J. Simpson: It was not an emphasis of the two opening episodes, even if last week’s first installment did include a brief shot of the victims’ bloodied and battered bodies.
The miniseries so far stakes out no moral high ground, offers no message that Simpson is a reprehensible character — a convicted felon, a wife-batterer, a slippery, narcissistic figure who went to lengths to avoid paying the $33.5 million judgment ordered against him at a civil trial in 1997, when he was found liable in the deaths of Nicole Simpson and Goldman.
Simpson was acquitted of murder charges in October 1995, at the close of what was often, if expansively, called the “Trial of the Century.”
Beyond its seeming indifference to the victims, the FX miniseries is toying with an improbable story line that the defense invoked with some success at the 1995 trial — namely that Simpson was framed by corrupt Los Angeles police.
That claim gained a thin measure of plausibility because of inept police work: The investigation of the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman was shown to have been so sloppy and compromised that by the end of the criminal trial, the notion Simpson was framed seemed to be not wholly preposterous. But it is unlikely. Simpson after all used to pal around with the LAPD.
In my latest book, 1995: The Year the Future Began, I discuss how Simpson’s defense lawyers extracted acknowledgements at the criminal trial that Los Angeles police criminalists “had mishandled or overlooked DNA evidence at the crime scene. They had placed DNA evidence inside plastic bags where they were prone to degradation. DNA samples were placed in a police evidence van that lacked air-conditioning. Crucial blood evidence was collected at the gate near Nicole Simpson’s townhouse three weeks after the killings. A portion of a reference sample of O.J. Simpson’s blood was spilled at the police laboratory where DNA evidence samples were tested.”
DNA evidence was the cornerstone of the prosecution’s case against Simpson, given that no confession was ever obtained, no murder weapon was ever found, and no witnesses to the crimes ever came forward.
After the defense had so thoroughly demonstrated that DNA evidence had been improperly gathered, handled, and processed, Simpson’s acquittal was inevitable.
The miniseries dramatizes the legal manuevers by an unlikable collection of cloying, egocentric lawyers on both sides — Robert Shapiro (played by a stiff and devious John Travolta) and Johnnie L. Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) for the defense, and Marcia Clark (played in eye-rolling fashion by Sarah Paulson) for the prosecution.
Simpson’s character is portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr., who fails to project the charisma once associated with Simpson. And he looks much older than Simpson did in the mid-1990s.
Not surprisingly, given efforts to generate favorable advance publicity for People v. O.J. Simpson, the miniseries has opened to strong ratings, the ultimate objective of over-the-top dramatic fare on cable.
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