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Friday, April 8, 2016

Is It 1994 Again? Why The Hell Is Everybody So Obsessed With OJ? Postmortem Review: American Crime Story Season One #AmericanCrimeStory #PeoplevsOJSimpson #FX #Postmortem

Is It 1994 Again? Why The Hell Is Everybody So Obsessed With OJ? Postmortem Review: American Crime Story Season One #AmericanCrimeStory #ThePeoplevOJSimpson #FX #Postmortem

All pictures courtesy of FX unless otherwise noted

That's right, ladies and gentlemen. I'm back with yet another postmortem send-up of a show that I failed to do a 3 week roundup on. As said before but bears repeating, I was so busy earlier in the year that I was unable to get to do all of my reviews for all the many mid-season shows that premiered from January to February. I am trying to catch up as I finish a project (writing sequels is hard, dudes and dudettes) and have a one week lull before I start work on The Writer (#TheWriter) season 2. But before all of that summer craziness hits, lets look at one of the best shows of the winter mid-season addition, American Crime Story: The People vs. OJ Simpson (#ThePeoplev-OJSimpson).

The gossip-worthy, salacious tabloid fodder that captivated the world returned 22 years after first shifting the American paradigm of journalism, sensationalism and the modern celebrity. For those who lived through this news (which is probably most of the shows viewers) the chase, legal accusation and trial of OJ Simpson AKA The Juice man AKA Juice transcended categorical barriers that long tried to pin celebrities into being just one or two things. It called into question our nation's racial animosities and maturity on the subject of hate, prejudice and bigotry. It forced us to relive and review the police brutality and subsequent LA riots of two years prior. And it forced us more than ever to realize that our sports heroes, just like us, are not only human but exceptionally and uniquely flawed. Every issue that surfaced during the trial and divided people even more than Batman v. Superman has not only stayed relevant 22 years later, but has molded and formed our opinions on fame, sports, race and even politics still today. And it all started with two dead white people and a black guy who maybe did it.

Admittedly, this might be difficult to review because of the proximity of the actual trial having occurred in comparison with the show. At times, it'll feel as if I'm critiquing the trial more than the show, but trust that I am going purely on what the show has shown us. Also, realize that I am trying to keep any bias out of this on whether or not he actually committed such a crime. Honestly, I never really had an opinion about it, which sounds crazy but is nonetheless true. Again, I am just going by the show.

We begin with the show's advertising. The commercials started by showing people's backs. This, in turn, is how much of the first episode is spent, looking at people's backs as they ran to and fro gathering evidence. Starting with OJ leaving for his trip to New York, we jump immediately into the crime. A neighbor and his dog wanders onto Nicole Brown's property and finds her and the pizza guy both dead. I didn't pay all my attention to the case when it happened back in '94, but I can tell you that I always thought she was found dead inside the house and not outside on the stairs. I also thought that she was found closer to the back of the home rather than the front, but I could be wrong and it's neither here nor there.

Predominantly visual, it relies on little dialogue to communicate the drama, a pro-trick on the writers' behalfs to let crucial scenes speak for themselves without staking claim to either side. There is no confirmation nor denial of a possible police conspiracy to frame OJ, or if he did it. When the cops do come, they gather all the evidence and special care is taken to show things like the glove, the droplets of blood on the Bronco, the statue that OJ had in his yard, the familial feel to Nicole's home and the flashy nature of OJ's--all stark images that serve to conjure an emotional roller coaster. The Bronco was parked askew from the curb as if he had rushed to get home after possibly committing the murder. Kato Kaelin makes an appearance in OJ's pool house and plays closer to a doofus than the real actor might have liked (after that he virtually disappears from the narrative but that's forgivable). OJ is alerted that his ex-wife has been found dead and the most captivating image of the episode is shown: OJ, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., sitting with his back to the camera as he slumps forward just slightly and curls his shoulders and arms inward toward his chest. Even from the back it makes him look both vulnerable and as if he could be hiding something. Without the face, it's too hard to tell--a very smart aesthetic.

Cochran / OJ Simpson / Marcia Clark

From there, we are introduced to the real main players in this courtroom soap drama. While I will acknowledge that OJ plays a big role in earlier episodes, later it is mostly between the lawyer teams on either side, which reduces Cuba's role to a B-level player in my opinion. As an aside, I want to point out now how dissatisfied I am with the makeup and wardrobe department on their lack of artistic creativity taken in regards to Cuba Gooding Jr. To me, he doesn't look anything like the Juice nor does he do a good job of acting like him to me either. While his performance isn't bad, it reminds me more of the character that OJ played in the Naked Gun movies rather than the real OJ, or even worse... Cuba Gooding Jr. himself. This I cannot blame wholly on Cuba as in an interview he said that the directors and producers didn't want him to try mimicking OJ in a true-to-life performance, but rather wanted him to capture the emotion behind the character.

Judge Ito
Chris Darden

With that said, I think that everyone else on the show, from John Travolta's Shapiro, Sarah Paulson's Clark, Courtney B. Vance's Cochran, Kenneth Choi's Judge Ito or Sterling K. Brown's Darden, not only give award-winning performances but look the part, too. In fact, there were times when I literally saw Vance as Cochran in the previews and forgot that it wasn't actually Cochran. He is convincing in manner and tone and is the best part of the series, with Paulson's Marcia Clark pulling in right close behind him.

To backtrack, for those that don't know the breakdown of the case or series. OJ is suspected of killing Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex, and her suspected new lover before fleeing back to his house and eventually across country. While evidence is gathered in the first episode, one of the LA county prosecutors Marcia Clark is given point on the case before they even have a legitimate suspect. They pull OJ in for questioning for formality sake. The questioning goes... strangely to say the least. He tries both to be charming and simple, while being evasive and innocent. Pre-arrest, public chatter starts about who did it and if Juice is a possible suspect, already dividing the country into two distinct camps. Fearing something bad, OJ seeks comfort from his family and friends, one of them being the now famed Robert Kardashian Sr. (I'm guessing he's the senior. Don't know how many of them there are). A past lawyer, he hasn't practiced law in a long time and even when he did, he didn't practice any kind of criminal law. He and Juice both know of another good lawyer for OJ as a precaution.

Meanwhile, Cochran is doing a lot of work both on TV and in the courtroom. After just returning to the county's office, he and his old, uh... let's say friendly rival/nemesis Chris Darden discuss the influence of race in their jobs. Cochran is a private attorney and Darden will be working for the DA's office. Cochran tells him to keep his wits about him because like it or not he is playing a game in which his blackness is something that will never go away, nor be ignored, and may actually be manipulated. So long as he is the one manipulating it, he should be fine, rather than playing an uncle Tom to "these white people."

Then comes the actual arrest warrant. To the DA's and police offices' credit, they try to keep OJ's arrest low-key by having him turn himself in by noon on June 17, 1994. In a dramatic twist that has been damned as patently false by many of the people involved, the scene plays out with OJ writing a slew of suicide letters to his family, friends and fans, before threatening to blow his brains out in Kim Kardashian's childhood bedroom in Robert's mansion (note: At this point in time, Robert and Kris have been separated and divorced for some time). The kids are with their mother, but it still drives home the heart-pounding drama of the day. After a doctor checkup deemed necessary by John Travolta's Shapiro, OJ decides to run instead of go to the station. His reason: He just wants to visit his momma before he goes to jail and/or possibly dies. And this is what leads to the infamous white Bronco chase.

Interestingly, what some may have forgotten (I know I did) was that he was neither driving the slow-moving vehicle, nor was the white Bronco his. The Bronco in question belonged to his best friend who was such a Stan for him that he bought an identical Bronco to OJ's because, you know... friendship.

And here gave birth to the 24hr news cycle, especially influenced by celebrity. While, yes, there were news channels that already existed and tried to report the news all day, most of them did not get anywhere near the ratings they get today as most people didn't care to hear nothing but bad news (all news is generally bad) all day. Also, because of fledgling ratings, many of them didn't stay on 24hrs with news programming, often filling the late and early morning hours with paid programming infomercials. CNN had only started in 1980 and still took over a dozen years to live up to its revolutionary label, earned by showing this breaking news over countless hours as every station preempted their programming to show the biggest and craziest sports story ever. A few years ago, ESPN, in their wonderful 30 for 30 series, documented this one day in history. A total of six (if I remember correctly. You can check me on that) front page news stories happened that day including the NBA Finals, and a huge LA earthquake, but this led everything, and ended with a standoff in his driveway with the police. From then on, the court of public opinion was set: you either knew that OJ did it, that he killed that young and beautiful white woman; or you thought he was an innocent man being railroaded by the system. And after looking at the amount of police time and dollars wasted on pursuing him through the empty highways of SoCal, anyone could be inclined to believe the latter.

And then things dig in. As an aside and shameless plug (hey, it's my blog. I should be able to plug whatever I want), my novel A Negotiation of Wounds follows the vitriolic, poisonous and corrosive manipulation and power that public opinion has on celebrity's lives. In my book, two high-powered LA lawyers try negotiating through a contentious divorce between a former model and her movie producer husband. They sink to new lows that rival Amazing Amy from Gone Girl and the characters from War of the Roses just to get their clients the settlement they want. The pressure to stay perfect in the public's eye can make you accept a lot more than you otherwise would.

Back to the show, I mention my book (#NegotiateWounds; A Negotiation of Sorrows out soon) because the show plays heavily into the narrative the different sides build around the OJ case. The fame-whoring but smart lawyer that Shapiro is, he begins to build a team for OJ that includes the recently bar-re-instated Robert Kardashian, Shapiro's mentor F. Lee Bailey and a few others. It isn't until a few episodes in when Cochran and his team are finally added as the last pieces, and this only happens when they realize the kind of jury they could possibly get and the fact that Cochran is better at dealing with a more "urban, downtown" audience. Plus, Cochran wins and is able to control a narrative most effectively. He's the showboat that they need to get the black vote, basically, as OJ is whiter than Casper outside of skin tone.

On the defense's side, Marcia pairs with senior attorney Bill Hodgman, and adds Chris Darden later in the trial after Hodgman has an unexpected in-court breakdown. For some reason Darden at first seems not to realize that they have him on the case as the token black guy. He quickly realizes just how much of a shiny Sambo he is when they don't listen to him on countless things and assign him the job of crossing their most feared but "important" expert witness, the extremely racist cop Detective Mark Fuhrman--one of the investigators on the night of. I have to mention that Steven Pasquale in the role of Fuhrman I thought was quite good. Remembering him from his days on Rescue Me, I am glad to see he still has a working relationship with the execs at FX and hope to see him on future American Crime Story installments.

Anyway, this show has tension coming from every nook and cranny, whether it be between the two teams or in-fighting amongst the teams, it's there. Darden argues they shouldn't put Fuhrman on the stand because he's racist. Cochran argues that they shouldn't settle and that even if Shapiro stays on as lead attorney, Cochran should be the one doing much of the talking and not Shapiro. Clark thinks that she has an open and shut, slam dunk, close the book 'cause it ain't no mo' words to read easy case. Neither side has any other suspect to consider nor do they look for one. Instead, they twist what they got.

A wrinkle that comes into the case later-on is that the Japanese judge, Lance Ito is married to an LAPD officer who happens to be a superior over Fuhrman, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. This, they both know, will be the biggest case of his life; career-defining. And so the stage is set.

A battle of perception and presumption, everything is called into question. Marcia Clark, despite her best behavior, is seen as having little appeal as a female and as a lawyer. Words like: bitch, cold and unlikable carelessly fly around in focus groups and the media. She undergoes two haircuts and starts to play the game of smiling more to look softer, more feminine.

Lest ye think this is solely a game that is enforced on women, think again. Not only does race, racial equality and racial police profiling factor heavily into this trial, but Darden and Cochran unabashedly go after each other in comparing and contrasting their blackness. Darden is seen as a coon for the prosecution, jumping, dancing and cracking-wise whenever his white lady boss orders it. "Yessa, Massa, I'll put the racist white cop on the stand. I's talk to him real nice like, too." Of course this backfires in two ways: not only does Fuhrman prove kryptonite for their case later in the process, but because Darden hasn't been listened to, he takes initiative on his own (slyly prodded by F. Lee Bailey) to make OJ do the infamous glove fitting. Face. Palm! Face. Palm! This comes after Marcia tells him not to do that. In this way, the show displays a very unique perspective on interracial relations between different sexes, too. The oppressed white woman still won't listen to or take advice from the black man, just as he grows fed up with the same old oppression and rhetoric that pushes him into society's corner in the first place. Both are supposedly second class, yet neither listen, and still within that paradigm, they show a great deal of sexual chemistry toward each other. And while the show never makes the footprint in the sand, they do heavily hint that Darden and Clark have a bedroom relationship of some sort, but just as in real life, this is neither confirmed nor denied. Looking back now, I wonder if the producers intended this to be a microcosm of OJ and Nicole's relationship? Hm?

Speaking of race as a broader topic, the series speaks from the voice of the race issue quite similar to how most people saw it during the time. Be not fooled, while there were plenty of other scale-tipping narratives to follow, be it celebrity vs. normal person, spouse vs. spouse, man vs. woman, or even abuser vs. victim, all of which the show touches, there is no bigger card played than that on race, the story of whether or not this big black man could kill this little, innocent white woman. And it is for this specific reason that the show is perfectly timed in the American conscience and pop culture.

To do another plug of one of my books The Provocateur, in it the titular character is quick to point out that change is somewhat of an illusion. Nothing really changes or progresses, but rather, we are all in a loop which we choose not to see. Everything is cyclical. It is only our current levels of intellect that allow us to placate ourselves in the illusion that things have progressed from one level to the next. There is no greater example of this than this show about a country-dividing legal case that happened 22 years ago that, outside of costumes and other fad styles (soon to make their own comebacks) is not only relevant but could literally play out the exact same today and nobody would find it shocking and it would still have the same effect. In fact, when considering what Ryan Murphy and the other creators have said of the show and how they want to base each season on a new crime (not necessarily always a courtroom drama, however) the case most similar to this that comes to mind quickly is the Trayvon Martin case. Majority Blacks may side one way, and whites another. Just as the Provocateur emphasizes, what we see as change has roots wholly in perception. Twenty-two years ago they argued about the dangers of a black man in a world in which he seemingly doesn't belong--a rich, gated community/higher society--and they do the same thing today. There is the bias of cops, black or white, against brown and black-skinned people, which plenty of people are quick to say is none existent or in our past. The Provocateur argues that somehow even the most liberal and educated of us all tend to forget the things of the past, or of the distant past in favor of the most recent suffering.

So while we are quick to push a post-racial or progressed America, we can't forget that we still have an entire generation of Baby Boomers who were born into racial and political turmoil that saw people killed and treated like animals mere 50 years ago. Or that we were quick to divide down a racial line a mere 22 years ago when assessing whether a black man killed his white ex-wife or not. Because for all the progress we've supposedly made, it's similar to a line said on one of my other shows, Rosewood, recently (and I paraphrase): A black man killing an Amber can get life or even the death penalty, but turn Amber into Shanique-Diamond and he might be able to get 5-8 years in the pen.

Be not chastised by those comments as this show is brilliantly written and even better acted. Even considering the overall insanity of the case itself, the show serves to ratchet up the drama to new heights one might have thought impossible in '94 and '95. The very definition of riveting, American Crime Story, you are. It is funny when levity is needed, hits all the proper sentimental and quiet beats, and actually makes you feel as if you finally have been welcomed into the inner-working of what went on during that landmark trial. And best (or worst) of all, it reminds us of just how dominated by the trial and the events surrounding this murder that today's pop culture still is. Faye Resnick, Nicole Brown's best friend at the time, still makes the occasional guest appearance on Bravo's Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. CNN's coverage and other networks' news coverage spawned the media news cycle we see today (Fox News was birthed in '96). We are more obsessed with the culture of celebrity than we've ever been before and want to know not just the trouble are favorite stars get into, but the run-up that led to such a downfall.

Even networks like ESPN and NBCSports find time between their wall-to-wall sports coverage to talk ad nauseam about domestic violence allegations of the biggest male athletes, their home stories, their rises and falls off the court, and pass judgment on whether they should be commended for being an elite player in their profession because of what they may or may not have done. Most of all--and I'm gonna get flack for this, but I don't give a damn--it reminds us that the biggest reality star(s) currently in the public eye The Kardashians, are not famous because of their own talent. But nor are they famous because Kim released some sex tape years ago involving a current B-list R&B singer (I say that even being a Ray J fan; swag swag!). No, she is famous because a young white woman who died younger than she ever will, was violently murdered possibly by her ex-husband... and her father potentially helped to clear a possible murderer of the charges. Brings a whole new morbid meaning to dying for fame, no?

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian / John Travolta as Robert Shapiro

My grade? You really haven't been paying attention? It's clearly an A. Any series that can give me anticipatory chills about how it'll end when I've known the ending for a full score of years already has to get an A. They based their view of the series off of a book, which I'm going to hope also is just as riveting. This is quite possibly both Sarah Paulson's and Courtney B. Vance's finest performances after years spent in Hollywood and acting. Most importantly, while it seeks to entertain it never loses sight of the most important thing in all of this circus: Two lives were extinguished far before their time. It ends the season on the two best images of the deceased. RIP.

Nicole Brown / Ronald Goldman

Should you be watching? Of course. Catch this on FX OnDemand on most of your cable and satellite providers or you can buy the DVD and they should also have it soon on other broadband distributions. It is a one season, contained story and the start to a new anthology series like American Horror Story. With that said, remember that each show's tone is different. Don't expect this to play like Mr. Robot, Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. It's captivating in its own unique way. Also, don't confuse this with ABC's American Crime. While they may deal with similar issues at times, it's vastly different. Expect the two shows to compete against each other come award season.

What do you think? If you didn't watch the show, why? Could you just not muster a single damn to care anymore about OJ? Or did it interest you but you didn't know when it was on so you didn't watch? If you did watch, how did you feel about the show? Did they get right the things you wanted them to get right? What about the added-in drama in certain instances? Just because the glove didn't fit, did they really have to acquit? With that said, and since this is a show that seems to want to stick with following true crimes, what real crime case would you want them to cover next that has happened in America? Trayvon Martin, Laci Peterson, Amanda Knox, Jonbenet Ramsey or something else, maybe older? With NBC already having Aquarius which chronicles the Manson family case, and having just greenlit an anthology on the Menendez brothers, I doubt they'll do either of those but maybe. What crime interest you? Let me know in the comments below (hint: click the no comments button if you see no comments).

Check out my new 5-star comedy novel, Yep, I'm Totally Stalking My Ex-Boyfriend. #AhStalking
If you’re looking for a scare, check the YA novel #AFuriousWind, the NA novel #DARKER#BrandNewHome or  the bizarre horror #ThePowerOfTen. For those interested in something a little more dramatic and adult, check out #TheWriter. The full first season is out NOW exclusively on Amazon; season 2 coming this summer. If you like fast action/crime check out #ADangerousLow. The sequel A New Low will be out in a few months. Join us on Goodreads to talk about books and TV, and subscribe to and follow my blog with that Google+ button to the right.

Until next time, "Dudes better come correct wit' dey mustaches, man. It's flagrant disrespect to come 'round here with a little bitty ol' pencil thin 'stache. If the 'stache ain't thick, you get beat wit' a stick."

P.S. OK, that has got to be the stupidest sign-off I've ever written. What the hell was that? To be fair, I did fall in love with Johnny's mustache. Y'all realize that Steve Harvey got the Johnny Cochran right now? Craziness. See, I told you... still a modern-day influence 22 years later. I'll think of something better next time.

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