in Compare/Contrast

I’m not sure how this happened, but I somehow managed to be absolutely riveted by the same story twice this year.  You see, back in February, FX launched the first season of American Crime Story, which was dubbed The People v. O.J. Simpson, and it was fantastic.  Every episode was much-watch TV just as much as the 1994 trial that it depicted was, and I honestly didn’t think I was going to see a better piece of American television this year.  Then, by no one’s intended design, two months after the FX mini-series concluded, ESPN released their own mini-series — a five-part documentary under their 30-for-30 moniker called O.J.: Made In America — which somehow managed to be even more captivating than the fictional series that preceded it.  And what’s great is that I don’t think Made In America does anything to diminish what The People v. O.J. Simpson accomplished.  They both compliment each other quite nicely as two distinct and marvelously done retellings of this insane story that could have only happened in America.

I feel like when talking about both of these series it’s hard to even know where begin, since both of them hit on so many different issues.  Like especially when you look at Made In America, though I could just be saying this just because it’s a lot fresher in my mind, but it’s a series that feels like it is literally about everything.  I mean it’s not.  But it is about race, fame, money, corruption, spousal abuse, male egotism, the criminal justice system, the city of Los Angles, and… well, you get the picture.  It hits on a lot of issues, so maybe I’ll just start with speaking in fairly broad strokes about really what makes these two series tick.

If I had to pin down what the biggest difference between these two series is, it’s that The People v. O.J. Simpson is about the trial in which former football star O.J. Simpson was accused of killing his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, while Made In America is about everything that made the trial the cultural phenomenon it was.  Meaning there’s a lot more ground laid in Made In America.  The series doesn’t even get to the trial until episode three of the mini-series, while The People v. O.J. starts right off on the night that O.J. supposedly (I mean… pretty much definitely) killed Nicole.

And though I probably wouldn’t necessarily call those first two episodes of Made In America the most entertaining episodes of the doc, I did still find them to be pretty fascinating in the (for lack of a better term) world-building that they do to set up a world in which something as crazy as the O.J. Simpson trial could happen.  We get a lot of information about O.J.’s early years, in which he overcomes his poverty-stricken background growing up in the Potrero Hills neighborhood of San Francisco to become a star of the football team at the decidedly white USC, while just miles away the Watts riots were tearing up Los Angeles.  And for these first two episodes, director Ezra Edelman explores this parallel narrative of O.J.’s rise into this very white world, shunning his identity as a black athlete while others like Muhammad Ali and Bill Russell embraced the civil rights movement, while racial strife seemed to plague the city of Los Angeles for decades.

Both the narratives depicted in the early episodes of Made In America were particularly informative for someone my age, because I have no concept of O.J., the likable superstar.  For as long as I’ve been cognizant of who O.J. Simpson is, he’s always been associated with this murder trial.  So it gives a lot more power to those later episodes of Made In America, and I think even to some extent The People v. O.J., seeing just what a charismatic presence he was.  This was a guy who before any other black athlete had done so, made the leap from superstar athlete to commercial pitchman to film star.  The guy was quite simply in a league of his own, which makes it all the more heartbreaking to watch in episode five how after the trial his once storybook life really unraveled, not that he didn’t deserve it.  Since, you know, he totally murdered his wife.

I guess one thing I can remember about FX’s The People Vs. O.J. Simpson back before it even aired was its, let’s just say eclectic, cast.  Which I think turned out well in a lot of regards, but in others not as much.  David Schwimmer was a bit of a revelation as Robert Kardashian, O.J.’s friend who served on his legal team during the case, despite the whole ordeal fracturing their friendship.  Then there’s Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson, who pretty much knock it out of the park as Johnny Cochran and Sarah Clark respectively.  However, seeing the real Robert Shapiro in Made In America just brings up this question that I already had in regard to The People vs. O.J.  And it’s what the hell was John Travolta doing in his performance as Bob Shapiro?  I’m not sure if it was a matter of bad casting, or John Travolta simply took all of his acting inspiration from his prosthetic eyebrows.  But it doesn’t really match up with the real Bob Shapiro at all, and I’m guessing the producers just wanted to bag John Travolta for this show that who knew if anyone was going to care about, whether he was right for the part or not.

Then another piece of casting that I can’t help but feel fell a bit short, is that of the man himself, O.J., who’s played to the best of his abilities by Cuba Gooding, Jr.  And I’m not saying this is a knock against Cuba, because it’s a hard part to play, considering the series never takes a definitive stance on whether or not O.J. “did it”.  And because I assume most actors try not to make rash judgements about the characters they’re playing, it seems to be a fairly empathetic performance, though in the end it came off as a bit whiny and aloof.  But watching the archival footage and home movies of the way O.J. acted in his everyday life, and the fact he was just so god damn handsome, the man reeked of charisma.  To the point where it’s hard to imagine anyone short of Will Smith being able to pull a part like this off.  I mean, there’s a moment where the FX show uses an oft-quoted line where Simpson said, “I’m not black.  I’m O.J.”, and watching this documentary you get a sense of just how transcendent of a celebrity O.J. was.

Of course, both of these shows point out that this wasn’t always a good thing.  O.J. clearly used his fame to get away with beating the crap out of his wife, which he clearly should’ve been arrested for years before he (I’m just gonna say it) killed Nicole.  But he never was, quite simply because Nicole was afraid of what he’d do next, and also because, well, he was O.J.  Which is something the documentary touches on a bit, is the way that powerful men try to control women, and to O.J. it seemed that after accumulating all this money and wealth and fame, Nicole was the one thing he couldn’t have, and that made him furious.

And while The People v. O.J. also manages to touch on the sexism running through this case with it’s depiction of the living nightmare Marcia Clark had to go through being constantly dissected by the media for her looks, the main societal injustice running through this story is of course race.  In The People v. O.J., a lot of this is dealt with in Johnny Cochrane and his team’s insistence on “playing the race card” throughout the trial to appeal to a predominantly black jury in a city with a torrid history of it’s police department mistreating African-Americans.  Made In America on the other hand, has a fair share of interviews with prominent figures of the black community in Los Angeles, which helps give plenty of context to this case’s influence on black America as a whole.

And as a white person, I suppose it’s easy to look at the fact that O.J. was set free for committing murder as a huge injustice, since as both of these shows point out, it’s ridiculous just how much evidence there was here implicating Simpson.  So much so that it almost seems like he wanted to get caught, and the whole trial was just one big dick-measuring contest in which he was trying to show that he could get away with anything.  But after watching the documentary, and seeing the amount of injustice that’d befallen the black community in Los Angeles and just knowing the plight of the black man in America, the fact that they “won” this one over white people almost makes it seem like justice actually was served.  But then you think about the fact that O.J. never really gave a shit about black people and you see what a scumbag he really is in the way he deals with the aftermath of Nicole’s death, and the whole thing just continues to be quite troubling.

But maybe that’s what’s so fascinating about this story.  It seems so simple on the surface: a really rich guy murdered his wife, so he should’ve gone to jail, right?  But then you see all the other different factors at play here, and all the different contradictions and juicy nuggets of information.  Which are so numerous that there are plenty of things that seem fascinating, but only get a little bit of investigation due to time restraints (like the fact that O.J.’s dad was a closeted homosexual).  Which probably accounts for why there’ve been so many different things written and reported about this case in the last twenty years.  And yet, I kind of doubt we’ll ever get anything quite as potent as this one-two punch that much like the murders themselves, seemed to come out of no where.