There are many seminal events that are etched in people’s minds forever. I can tell you what I was doing when I heard that John Lennon had been shot. I can tell you where I was when space shuttle Challenger exploded. I can even tell you who told me that John Kennedy had been assassinated – and I was just five years old at the time. I can also tell you where I was when O.J. Simpson tried to make a run for Mexico in his white Ford Bronco SUV. Like most North Americans, I was glued to the TV for hours watching with complete incredulity as the scene played out live before our eyes. Did I think right there and then that he had killed his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman? You bet I did (and still do) but I’m not African-American, and that’s what separated the believers from the non-believers… and perhaps still does. Black lives mattered back then too.
FX’s new American Crime Story series, THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON, revisits that bizarre time back in June 1994. The show features a cavalcade of stars from both TV and film including Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, and Sarah Paulson (CAROL) as Marcia Clark. It’s the kind of show that would appeal to people who religiously follow the exploits of the Kardashian family. (Actors playing) the K kids and their mother are even given screen time as their patriarch, Robert (played by David Schwimmer), was O.J.’s best friend and stood beside the NFL great throughout his trial. THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is trash television but it’s also compelling to watch. It’s similar to the aftermath of a car accident. We know we shouldn’t look but we do anyway, and we keep coming back for more. It’s the TV equivalent of Doritos.
Perhaps it’s with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight that we can say that O.J.’s acquittal was a foregone conclusion. The trial and the events leading up to it were a complete fiasco. Potential witnesses were all cashing in on their 15 minutes of fame. Overnight, Kato Kaelin and Faye Resnick became household names. The defense attorneys were even more reprehensible, taking their case to the media first. Cochran, Bailey and the others were regular guests on Larry King’s show. Judge Lance Ito seemed to be unable to rein anyone in, least of all his own wife, who knew detective Mark Furman but failed to disclose that information in an affidavit she signed. As much as the district attorney’s office thought this case would be slam-dunk win, Clark and her team didn’t stand a chance against Simpson’s Dream Team of lawyers and experts who challenged every motion and cast doubt on every piece of evidence and how it was gathered. Cochran’s line, “If the gloves don’t fit, you must acquit” became the trial’s closing mantra… and the jury bought it.
THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Toobin broke the story in The New Yorker that Simpson’s legal team were planning to play the “race card” by accusing Detective Furman of planting evidence at the crime scene. (His interview with Robert Shapiro is played out in Episode 3.) The interesting part of the series is that we get to see and hear the backroom conversations between Clark and her team, and Cochran and his team. We learn, for example, that Shapiro wanted Simpson to plead guilty to manslaughter but was out-manoeuvered by Cochran who wanted to be the star of the show… and this was all show.
The best part of the series though, and by “best” I mean in a Doritos sort of way, is the hammy performance by John Travolta. He seems to have overdone it with the Botox, to the point where his face doesn’t move when he talks. Granted, Shapiro does speak with a measured cadence but Travolta manages to turn the character into a clown.
The series runs for ten episodes and it will be interesting to see if it can sustain an audience right to the end. Ratings over the first five episodes have already dropped 40 percent since the premiere. Maybe there are only so many Doritos one can eat.
THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON is currently playing on FX in North America and on BBC Two in the UK. It hasn’t been scheduled to come to Hong Kong yet but it’s only a matter of time before it does.
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