Battle Of The OJ Simpson Special-Event Serieseses
It's forgotten Schiller miniseries American Tragedy vs. current critical darling American Crime Story. Who's going to win over the jury?
Long ago, in an election year far, far away, another miniseries aired about the OJ Simpson trial: American Tragedy, based on the book of the same name by Larry Schiller (and adapted for TV by Norman Mailer). American Tragedy is nearly impossible to find now, at least for a reasonable price in a practicable medium -- I watched in on a VCR; kids, ask your parents -- and before viewing it, I wondered why that might be. Is it simply horrendous and tasteless? Did the producers of American Crime Story bury it to subtract any competition from their own project?
I doubt it's the latter; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it's not the former, either. American Tragedy is, with a couple of exceptions, quite creditable, though of course it's superfluous at this point in TV-schedule history.
But let's say you could put Americans Tragedy and Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson head-to-head. Which OJ project wins? Ring the bell!
Which came first?
Tragedy aired in November of 2000; Crime Story just started in February.
Which is more efficient?
It's apples and DNA, but if you knew nothing about the case and had to download one visual rendition of it, you'd do better with Tragedy, which is just shy of three hours; Crime Story is ten hour-ish installments.
Which project has a better behind-the-camera pedigree?
Each project is based on a different book that came out of the case: Tragedy on Schiller's book of the same name, Crime Story on Jeffrey Toobin's The Run Of His Life. I haven't read the Schiller, but it's unlikely that it's as well done as Toobin's from a prose standpoint, but may have better embedded access to Simpson and his defense team. We can call that a push, I think.
Schiller also directed Tragedy, from a teleplay adapted by Norman Mailer. Crime Story counts producer Ryan Murphy, seasoned TV helmer Anthony Hemingway (Underground, Treme), and John Singleton as directors, and was co-created by Murphy, which may or may not be a plus depending on how you feel about the American Horror Story franchise and its ability to sustain the weight of its casts and world-building.
Tragedy lists Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana among its executive producers, and again here this is possibly a mixed blessing (the recent Killing Fields was a disappointment; Oz could be super-soapy and self-serious).
This is a very close call; Mailer's superior name recognition cancels out Toobin's probably-superior source material, but then there's the fact that Schiller has won quite a few Emmys as a miniseries director. My preference aside, I think we have to call it for
Which has the better on-camera pedigree?
I could go role-by-role, but neither of us has all day, so let's cut to the chase: because Crime Story gets more in depth with the prosecution's side of the trial, casts more of the minor players (and with names), and doesn't integrate the scripted cast into actual trial footage the way Tragedy does, it's got this simply by volume.
Winner: Crime Story.
Which project's casting is more surprisingly effective?
One of my concerns about Crime Story before it aired was that the casting news would Snakes On A Plane the whole enterprise -- that we'd be so transfixed by the physical resemblances, the story wouldn't matter. That hasn't happened, as the corps is doing uniformly compelling work, particularly John Travolta as Robert Shapiro.
Ron Silver is, you know, very Ron Silvery in the same role, and very good, but Ving Rhames is the real revelation as Johnnie Cochran; the casting makes little sense on paper, but Rhames inhabits Cochran's cadences very believably. Courtney B. Vance's acting is probably better, in a vacuum, but I for one didn't expect anything less from Vance; I expected much less from Rhames. And from Jeff "Rack" Kober, whom I've made the mistake of underestimating for years now.
You could really say that about the respective entire casts, but thanks to Tragedy's marginally lower-profile cast and Rhames, this one goes to
Which one communicates the complex racial and judicial issues in play less kludgily?
Kludge is rather difficult to dodge when it comes to Simpson exposition ("Simpsplaining"?), and Tragedy kind of just leans into it, but several exchanges early on -- like when the team is discussing adding Cochran -- are avoidably ham-handed. Tragedy frequently turns to Cochran associates Carl Douglas and Shawn Chapman for Socratic dialogues on the race card, and while it makes no bones about doing this, it's inelegant.
Crime Story is not a whole lot defter about it -- lingering shots and focus pulls underlining issues of racism and police corruption viewers didn't need help noting -- and has more than three times as much airtime in which to make sure the audience capital-G Gets things, but also has the excuse of airing more than twenty years after the trial. Nobody watching in 2000 would have needed the talking points reviewed, whereas today's viewer might.
Winner: As of this writing, Crime Story.
Which provides a more balanced/complete overview of the case and trial?
The subtitle of Schiller's book is The Uncensored Story Of The Simpson Defense; neither it nor the movie claims to cover what the prosecution is doing/thinking, except vis-a-vis how Simpson and the Dream Team respond to or manipulate it.
Crime Story, like The Run Of His Life, is a story of the entire trial, both sides (and Ito, and Dominick Dunne, and various other case "figures").
Winner: Crime Story.
Which work recreates that time and its madness more accurately?
This is one of those times when I wish I weren't allergic to the word "immersive" in TV criticism, but here we are. Anyhoodle: Tragedy is pretty good in this regard, but is made close enough to the actual events that slightly less attention is paid to variations in suiting, lighting, hairstyles, et cetera. Crime Story has to come at production design like it's a period piece, because...it is, and everything from the close feeling of the courtroom to the cheap-feeling suits that still cost two grand to the hairstyles and the way women wore jeans is flawlessly done.
Tragedy does integrate actual trial footage, and insert its actors digitally into it at times, and the mimicking of TV kerning is clever; it's a valid angle to come at it from, especially if you'd just as soon let the real Mark Fuhrman speak for himself without comment. But it also cheats the recreation question just a bit.
It's closer than you'd think, but...not close, exactly? The one that really surrounds you with, well, the way the trial surrounded us is
Winner: Crime Story.
You guys, this is sooooo so close. A couple of these categories could have gone either way, and not in a helpful decision-forcing way, either. I suppose I have to give it to Crime Story since, you know, you can actually watch that one and have to take my word for the other one, but the fact is, Tragedy is very good, and both projects have surprised me repeatedly and pleasantly with top-notch thoughtful performances, and takes on a notorious case that make me think even if their touches aren't light, so that means the winner is
Winner: The audience. (And...anyone with a working VCR. Hi, Dad!)