The Year’s Best TV Show
In the last few years a handful of TV series have proved to be better than anything Hollywood can hope to produce; ‘Six Feet Under’, ‘The Wire’, ‘The West Wing’, ‘The Newsroom’, ‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, ‘The Bridge’, ‘Trapped’ and of course ‘Breaking Bad’. To that illustrious list should now be added ‘The People VS OJ Simpson’.
Behind that anodyne title is something remarkable. Enough time has now passed for the events surrounding this extraordinary miscarriage of justice to pass into history (the story will be new to many), and it can be regarded with the hindsight afforded by distance and context.
By treating the verdict as understood, the series has been free to examine a bigger picture – the racism and sexism that allowed the defence to undermine the prosecution’s theoretically airtight physical evidence. The abuse heaped upon the female prosecutor is unthinkable today, and I hope it would be impossible for defender Johnny Cochrane to get away with redressing Simpson’s home for a jury visit, changing nude paintings and photos of golf tournaments to pictures of Martin Luther King and African art in order to suggest that Simpson was not a rich white man but a black brother.
OJ himself, played by Cuba Gooding Jr, is quickly sidelined as a rather dim self-deluded buffoon, so that the series can get to the meat; how a show trial in a democratic western country could become a grotesque absurdist satire beyond the wildest imaginings of Soviet officialdom.
Playing the drama straight was a smart move, dropping the jaw faster and further than if it had been played out as a black comedy. What astounds most is that nobody recognised what they were doing was corrupt and morally indefensible.
But it’s not a freak show – the effects on the lives of ordinary people are shown by the time we got to the jury episode, when all factions have become tainted, with both sides using the juror deselection process to score points.
The makers avoided using much of the Kardashians or idiot key witness Kato Kaelin because there was a fear that adding them would detract from the moral seriousness of the piece. It was the right decision; the show has achieved one of the highest critical scores in TV history, and rightly so.
The show’s fall guy and heroine is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, in a role cast from Greek tragedy – while John Travolta’s Bob Shapiro is deadpan-hilarious, pompous, misguided and so very LA. The series is based on ‘The Run of His Life’ by Jeffrey Toobin, and is crystal clear about Simpson’s guilt because there is no question now, nor has there ever been. But the Not Guilty vote had little to do with Simpson and everything to do with a single raised digit to the system that brought America to this cataclysmic point.
It’s worth remembering that the shamelessness of the whole sorry spectacle continued after the verdict. Simpson wrote an appalling cash-in book called ‘If I Did It’. When the UK cover was printed, the art director knocked back the word ‘If’ in a red shade similar to the background, making his intentions clear.
Case solved; watch the box set and see the kind of TV we in the UK simply aren’t capable of creating.