What makes The People vs. O.J. Simpson such riveting television?
It's not like the story carries the weight of suspense; barring an Inglourius Basterds-level break with reality, we already know the outcome of the most publicized trial in American history. The FX show also isn't action-packed in any conventional sense; now that the Bronco chase is over and O.J. is behind bars, most of the story takes place in off-white conference rooms and the same blandly functional courthouse.
The key to The People vs. O.J.'s storytelling is the procedure of the exceptionally nuanced strategies being established, which grow more complicated and exhilarating on both sides of the aisle with every episode. It's easy to look at the whole thing as the world's most interesting and intricate chess game. It can feel almost fun.
By now, O.J.'s defensive Dream Team already consists of a half-dozen top lawyers — each of whom assumes he's the smartest man in the room, and each of whom is attempting to outmaneuver the others. This week, Johnnie Cochran takes his rightful place at the top, leaving Robert Shapiro ineffectually sputtering as he sees his leadership stomped down by the same lawyer he was once so obsessed with employing.
Things are no less interesting on the prosecution side, where Marcia Clark and her team are busily gilding the lily on a case that they already assume will be a slam-dunk victory for the D.A.'s office. The trial hasn't even formally begun, but it's clear, with the hindsight of history, that mistakes are already being made. The Dream Team's obstructionist tactics bog down every hearing leading up to the trial, and Marcia and her team spend much of the episode discussing wonky-but-necessary courtroom considerations like optics, jury selection, and how much the trial might be swayed by varying opinions about the LAPD or USC football or a million other tiny factors.
And then, in the middle of "100% Not Guilty," The People vs. O.J. delivers a one-scene wonder that offers a heartrending reminder of the very real human stakes at play. Marcia Clark invites murder victim Ron Goldman's father Fred (Joseph Siravo) and sister Kim (Jessica Blair Herman) to meet her in person before the trial begins. "We're going to be seeing a lot of each other," Marcia explains, before coolly telling the Goldmans she understands their pain.
And then Fred explodes, in a monologue that goes on for several raw, wrenching minutes that cut through all the gamesmanship. "Do you?" he cries. "Do you have a son who was murdered? Ron is dead. And it's like no one even cares."
"I turn on the TV, and it's just, 'O.J. and Nicole, O.J. and Nicole.' It's like Ron is a footnote to his own murder. And if they talk about him they make him seem like some kind of joke. It sounds so superficial: He was a male model, he was a night club promoter, he ran a tanning salon. It's like they're trying to tarnish him. Like he was asking for it. You know what he did in his spare time? He volunteered at a clinic for children with cerebral palsy. He was a good person. He didn't drink. He didn't do drugs. He should be celebrated. Not… this."
Marcia can't even bring herself to look him in the eye. But after Fred describes the horrifying extent of his son's injuries — stab wounds all over his body, including some that were inflicted even after he was dead — she steels herself and takes Fred's hand. "We are gonna get him," she promises. "You better," he replies.
It's here, for the first time, that The People vs. O.J. establishes itself not as a procedural but as a tragedy. Though the series shied away from depicting O.J. (or anyone else) committing the murders, the evidence could hardly point to him more. (There's a reason, after all, that the real-life prosecutors were as confident as these fictionalized ones.)
From the perspective of the creative team behind The People vs. O.J., the Goldman scene in "100% Not Guilty" can't help but feel a bit like an apology — an acknowledgement that the show is wringing 10 hours of lucrative drama out of the violent murders of two people. This isn't a black-and-white situation. The People vs. O.J. has infinitely more artistic merit than, say, Jay Leno's Dancing Itos. But as the series dramatizes our real-life national obsession with the O.J. Simpson trial — which allowed vultures like Faye Resnick to sell out her best friend and score a number one New York Times bestseller — I couldn't help but reflect on the sky-high ratings for The People vs. O.J., and wonder whether this modern audience wasn't a part of the show's critique as well.
I suppose that's why, as I watched the rest of the episode, I found my thoughts drifting to the real-life Goldmans — forced to grieve in the middle of a media circus of the actual trial 20-odd years ago, and reliving the events in this fictionalized trial today. It's easy to laugh off the real Kato Kaelin's complaints over his TV counterpart eating hamburgers, but it's hard to ignore the feelings of those who had such a deep, real-life stake in the trial, and who continue to deal with its ramifications every day.
As it turns out, the real Fred and Kim Goldman have commented on the series, in an interview with The Daily Mail published shortly before the premiere. The Goldmans expressed disappointment that Ron's murder would, yet again, be reduced to a footnote. Kim took particular objection to an interview given by Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the book on which the series was based, in which he said that the series wasn't about Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman. "Why is it not about them?" she said. "Why wouldn't you even give them the courtesy of showing them or highlighting who they were?"
The People vs. O.J. was in a lose-lose situation here. Depict the murders — on a medium that shows plenty of fictionalized bloodshed — and you run the risk of making them gratuitous or lurid. Avoid them, as the show did, and you run the risk of marginalizing the horror of the very real crime that was committed. And either way, the ugly truth was that the crime did eventually overshadow the victims. Where their lives ended, another story begins: a story about race, and celebrity, and gender, and power, and the character of America in general. That's the story The People vs. O.J. is telling.
But that truth doesn't take away from the pain of the Goldman family. In the Daily Mail interview, Fred and Kim revealed that they did plan to watch the series — though only because they felt they had "no choice." The fictionalized version of the conversation between Marcia, Fred, and Kim was extremely wrenching for me to watch. I can't even imagine how it will feel for them. But I hope it serves the goal the Goldmans have been pursuing their entire lives: to make sure that the goodness of the real Ron Goldman isn't overlooked or forgotten.