I always assumed that catching bits of Naked Jungle would be the TV memory that scarred me to the day I gratefully died, until I sat through The People v. O. J. Simpson and found myself almost wistful for Keith Chegwin’s balls.
Originally broadcast on FX in 2016 and now residing on a True Crime streaming service called Netflix, American Crime Story is what happens when you let the people who made Glee and American Horror Story near a real-life murder case. The result is the kind of gaudy camp usually reserved for treatments of Jack the Ripper, the difference being how recently this high-profile double-homicide knocked Tonya Harding and “the internet” out of the papers.
At its best The People v. O. J. Simpson is car-crash TV, the dramatic equivalent of Jemini at Eurovision or bad cocaine. You’ve got Cuba Gooding Jr. channeling 30 Rock‘s Tracy Jordan as O. J., or Juice to his friends. Which means a high-camp John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and a doe-eyed David Schwimmer as Rob Kardashian running around yelling “Juice!” like they need something to wash the dirty taste of the script from their mouths.
Every line is painfully functional and every music cue embarrassingly literal (I Shall Be Released, Chained and Bound etc). As prosecutor Marcia Clark, the talented Sarah Paulson is tasked with saying things like “He’s going behind bars” or “We’re taking him to trial” to characters fully aware of the situation. And when dialogue is strictly limited to exposition and people saying exactly what they’re thinking, subtext and character development are off the table.
In fact the only time the series veers from the events of the trial is when it goes out of its way to shoehorn in the Kardashian children, in scenes more sinister and bizarre than anything in American Horror Story. Whether the family had some hand in production or they’re just omnipotent in TV I don’t know, but I have never seen product placement for people before.
The vindication of the Kardashians appears to be the show’s top priority. More so than condemning police racism or proving Simpson’s guilt, it wants us to know that Robert Kardashian’s only crime was one of friendship (the casting of Ross from Friends is perhaps the greatest indicator of the series’ subtlety levels). American Crime Story would have us believe the attorney played no legal role in Simpson’s defence, in a display of Kardashian bum-licking not seen since that sex tape.
The People v. O. J. Simpson does manage to convey in the broadest possible terms an indictment of American society and policing, whereby the public found it easier to believe in a racist conspiracy than insurmountable evidence for misogynist violence. But it takes 10 excruciating hours to do what could have been 2 decent ones, pitched at a simplistic level of debate and a telenovela level of performance.
It masquerades as prestige TV but this is insulting, exploitative True Crime, a genre that extracts the voyeurism of horror and thrillers but discards the use of metaphor or art direction. It’s like the Golden Age of Television never happened. Any of them.