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American Crime Story

It's Never That Simple On American Crime Story

The case wasn't 'about' just one thing. Is the show so watchable because it understands that?

I wonder if American Crime Story is so compelling because it understands all the axes along which the real case was so compelling, the way that The People v. OJ Simpson could never manage to "be about" just a single thing. In a perfect world, it would have been: someone killed Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, and the trial should have "been about" only that, whether OJ Simpson was that someone. The trial didn't take place in a perfect world, though. It took place in Los Angeles.

...Tip your waitress! Seriously, though: the case, the trial, our preoccupation with OJ -- those two letters coming to stand for not just the man but the entire situation and its Hydra of participants -- was "about" the murders, and the pursuit of justice; and it was "about" race in Los Angeles and in America; and it was "about" police corruption, and celebrity, and loyalty, and ethics in journalism, and how you live with two dozen strangers when you're not allowed any live TV.

And each of those issues contained a bunch of other little issues (or big ones), braided into the main one or remora-ing along just above it. I wonder if ACS's brilliant watchability comes out of that complexity, and the company's ability to portray it.

A few moments that "A Jury In Jail" refused to oversimplify, in no particular order:

  1. The jury's intransigence.
    It's...not customary, but let's say that it happens a lot that the "take on" the jury's verdict in The People v. OJ Simpson came out of a twofold desire: to send a message about racist cops, and to get the fuck out of sequester and go home. Certainly it's received wisdom that even jurors who believed the prosecution had met its burden in the case were not willing to dig in for a lengthy fight they would surely lose.

    "A Jury In Jail" makes that motivation quite sympathetic, showing us all the little privations over months on end -- Reader's Digests reviewed for banned material, TVs taken out of hotel rooms, crappy steam-tray food, gossip, papers with whole columns cut out -- that might lead one high-strung juror to charge the sheriff's deputies and try to escape. I've served on exactly one jury to date, and I got to go home, but it still wears you down. So much shuffling. So much droning. Such pathetic food. Whatever your smugly civic-minded intentions when you're seated, by the end of a case that has almost never been presented with even a fraction of the flair you see on The Good Wife or Law & Order, you just want it done. I think a lot of people judge the OJ jurors harshly for that, for just wanting to "do the easy thing" and put the situation behind them. I used to. Then I got called on a podiatry malpractice case.

  2. The jury's division along racial lines.
    The Martin vs. Seinfeld set-to during TV time had my eyes rolling. This is one of those times when, if this is how it really went down, telling it as it really went doesn't work (and not for nothing, but holding up a brick of Blockbuster rentals and making sure we know they're VHS format is a thing writers need to stop doing in projects of that era; one, we get it, and two, nobody called them "VHSes" -- you said "tapes" or "rentals" or "a movie"). It's too on-the-nose, and that one guy grumbling that Seinfeld isn't about anything, oo-fah. WE GOT IT.

    Then the show flips it, cutting to "poker night" in OJ's cell, OJ himself recounting a funny Kramer scene.

  3. Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran: mutual loathing, mutual respect.
    I love how much Clark loves winning and never passes up an opportunity to try to, even if it's shaping up as a Pyrrhic victory. I love how much Cochran also loves it, and respects how much she loves it, and I know these are real people and one of them has passed away, but I wish Clark and Cochran could get a spinoff. This "...nnnnneener!"/"uch, dammit" exchange of looks after yet another juror argument is everything that makes American Crime Story great.

    2016-03-22-acs-neener

    It's not as simple as saying that each is one side of the same coin; I think Clark had an uncynical passion about the case that Cochran leveraged against her more than once. But Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance convey that sense of two people in opposition, but also alone together in their unique positions, like prisoners of war.

  4. The "rehearsal" of OJ's testimony.
    It almost makes you wish we'd seen him testify after all; what a beautiful disaster that would have been, right up there with Jeffrey MacDonald in the off-putting defendants' hall of fame. We won't see that happen, of course, but what we do see is the show tipping its hand on its opinion of OJ, to wit: he's a glib bully, too used to getting his own way.
  5. "It would convict him. I would convict him."
    Jeffrey Toobin's book has little use for Robert Kardashian or any of the other "friends" Toobin sees more as flunkies and attachments, but you can't help feeling for Kardashian here. He knows OJ killed Ron and Nicole, and as unanswerable evidence piles up, it's not so much that he can no longer avoid seeing the truth, but that he's always known it, and simply didn't move fast enough not to be the last friend standing. Now Kardashian must face that a man he greatly admired, and to an extent used, killed two people and doesn't really regret anything except getting caught, and that to admit now that this is what he believes would hang OJ in the actual court, never mind the court of public opinion.

    2016-03-22-acs-kardashian

    But then at the same time there is a top note in Kardashian's panic sweat of concern with how it would look for himself -- not merely that to abandon the fiction of OJ's innocence would look bad for OJ, but that he would look like a shitbird, first gullible, then disloyal. So you feel for him, even though he did this to himself, and then you kind of go back to thinking he deserves to feel crappy if this is one of his besties.

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