It will seem strange to some that over the last ten weeks there have been some people watching the UK run of The People Versus OJ Simpson that were unaware of the outcome of the trial. In 1995 it was the global phenomenon. It was the moment where television changed forever. It was the moment when television went from being, at its heart, a machine to deliver information into the households of a nation to becoming the circus ring we recognise it as today. The OJ Simpson trial not only saw in America network soaps being dumped for live coverage of a courtroom, but in the UK, (in a country where only fans of Police Squad and the Naked Gun movies would even know who OJ was), BBC2 dedicated 45 minutes a day in a tea time slot (a slot normally reserved for Quantum Leap) to a recap of the day’s progress in Los Angeles. The trial of a man accused of the brutal stabbing to death of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman was entertainment, it was box office.
The People Versus OJ Simpson might one day come to be seen as the apex of several trends currently exciting US networks and audiences alike. On the face of it, this is just a high class TV movie, but it goes much deeper than that; (in fact a TV movie of this was already made just a few years after the trial, in which Bobby Hosea’s OJ is portrayed as an all out violent psychopath, whimpering the one minute, throwing his fists around the next. Cuba Gooding Jnr’s performance here is a bit more classy, even a bit more sympathetic, although we are never doubting the narcissistic cruelty of the brattish murderer that OJ Simpson most obviously is).
The People Versus OJ Simpson is the first instalment of an anthology series; a programme where every season tells a different story in a similar style and produced by the same people, and in some cases has the same actors playing different roles. The increasingly tedious American Horror Story is perhaps the most popular of these beasts, which was bad way before season one ended. True Detective is another, of which season one shines in the landscape of modern television drama for its story, it script, its tone, and its performances, and season two was so bad it ensured there cannot possibly be a season three (surely not!).
Secondly, and most importantly perhaps, The People Versus OJ Simpson is what is now known as True Crime. Netflix hit the word-of-mouth jackpot last year with Making a Murderer, the 10 hour documentary that followed up close the extremely dubious convictions of Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey for the murder of Teresa Halbach in Wisconsin in 2005. This programme caught the public imagination, which it seems for quite some time now has been thirsty for dramatic television that is simply too powerful to be true, if only were it not for the fact it is absolutely true. Making a Murderer set in motion a trend, and off the back of it last year Sarah Koenig’s peabody award-winning Serial podcast series about the murder of schoolgirl Baltimore Hae Min Lee and subsequent conviction of her boyfriend Adnan Sayed in 1999 became the fastest ever podcast to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes.
Both Making A Murderer and Serial are compelling pieces of storytelling. The Netflix documentary has come under some scrutiny for some elements that may or may not have hit the cutting room floor during the edit, and Serial can be annoyingly non-commital in places (particularly as the story hurtles towards a conclusion), but the overriding message here is a not one of innocence or guilt, but rather, just how dysfunctional the American justice system is.
In both cases covered by Making a Murderer and Serial, the convictions are extremely discomforting to analyse. Few people would suggest any of the accused did not have cases to answer of some sort or another, but it is clear the system did everything to make sure once pointed at, they were done for. Independent analysis of both cases have clearly stated there was not enough evidence to convict.
The opposite is true of OJ, of course. Marcia Clarke, the prosecuting attourney played magnificently by Sarah Poulsen, is just one character in The People Versus OJ Simpson to mention the evidence pointing at the former football Hall-of-Famer is as incriminating as any case ever brought to court. What this drama did was to expertly pull in every element to colour what could still be one of the defining events in American modern history. It was a case about a brutal man who murdered two people in a vicious attack, and it became a referendum on race. That America is still in a difficult place when it comes to this subject is an open debate, and a global one, and The People Versus OJ Simpson is a timely reminder that what may seem like small victories can be extremely ill-conceived and short lived. The verdict in the OJ trial was about payback, the programme makers are clear about that; but the jury would have done better to throw in him jail for his murders. As the Republican Party use racism to get traction in the polls; as police departments across the United States consistently fall short of the least that should be expected of them in their duties to protect all equally under the law; as programmes like Making a Murderer show racism in America is also powerfully felt by the white underclass; as a podcast like Serial highlights even more divisions between ethnicities; it is obvious just how forgotten the OJ Simpson trial of 1995 really is. The next in the American Crime Story anthology is reportedly to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; the story of America is the snakelike narrative of its racial history, and that is no different now than it has ever been. OJ Simpson may have been at the centre of the trial of the century, but it was last century, and the only thing it really changed was television.