There is no doubt that The People vs. O.J. Simpson will gain popular traction just by virtue of the nature of its content. Whether it deserves this traction is a valid question; given the interesting cast (Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, John Travolta) and its place on a cable channel new to making homemade dramas (FX), it seems that The People vs. O.J. Simpson is predestined to be flawed. While regurgitating a beaten crime story — especially considering the emotional distress the Simpson family must continually face — seems questionable, the show demonstrates how the case has obvious parallels to today’s racial tensions. Therefore, The People vs. O.J. Simpson, at best, can be described as being caught at the crossroads of well intentions and poor execution.
The show establishes its multifaceted purpose in the very first scene by setting the sociopolitical backdrop of the crime story, intentionally making connections with the racial climate still persisting in today’s world. Themes such as police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth both featured in the tense racial divide of 1994 and echo the tragedy of today’s residual inaction. These themes shape an alternative perspective to the trial and provide a voice that historically was muddled by the drama of the trial itself. These parallels are overt; the creators make no pretense of subtly alluding to the racial tensions that fueled much of the controversy in the 1994 trial. The themes themselves are not novel, nor does the show present them as clever and unique. However, these blatant visual thematic constructions allow the viewers to fully immerse themselves in the past and present flaws of law and order in America. It is important to realize that the creators of The People vs. O.J. Simpson are not condoning or supporting O.J. Simpson by portraying additional sociopolitical facets of the trial. On the contrary, one of the show’s more commendable qualities is its attempt to distinguish itself as more impactful than another tiresome drama by using the show as a medium for social commentary.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson also faces the significantly difficult task of historical balance. With a story of this tension-fueled magnitude, it is tricky to provide a depiction without being swayed (even intentionally) by bias from one side of the story or another. Factors like increased camera time on certain characters, language and dialogue, delivery or even lighting can change the way the audience perceives the stpry on a cognitive level. However, the show seems to successfully strike a balance between the two sides of the trial (at least given the first few episodes released). The audience receives storylines which are emotionally orthogonal from each other such that we feel the rage and determination the prosecutors feel towards Simpson during their scenes, but still feel sympathy for Simpson and his family during his. Therefore, while the stories of the defense and the prosecution are inseparable from one another, we have a sense of emotional distinction between the two that leads each individual viewer to cultivate his or her own opinions of the trial.
However, The People vs. O.J. Simpson suffers from an inability to deliver the significance carried by the themes of the show. This might seem to contradict what I said earlier, that the show makes both visual and written decisions to strike a balance between the two sides of the crime. However, the directors, writers and creators essentially negate their efforts by including rather jarringly trivial scenes that devalue the overall execution of the production. One of the most insignificant decisions was including scenes (yes, more than one) of the Kardashian children. They’re portrayed as idiotic, self-indulgent children, further establishing their irrelevancy in the show. At most, the inclusion of Kris Kardashian makes some logical sense, but the entire scene seems to be the show’s way of pandering to a general audience for cheap entertainment. Other decisions, while small, can become distractions to the viewer. The director, Anthony Hemingway, has an affinity for histrionic camera zoom-ins on characters midway through anti-climactic dialogue. The viewer can’t help but laugh, which immediately detracts from the actual sociopolitical weight that underlines most of the scenes (of course, except for those featuring the Kardashians). Even makeup decisions hurt the show; John Travolta’s facial travesty, for instance, has the viewer laughing every time he has screentime. Since this is usually when he’s with O.J., it further devalues the emotional weight of his grief. I would even go so far as to criticize Cuba Gooding Jr.’s portrayal of O.J., making him less like a suave and charming man and more like the ever-distressed sounding Tracy Morgan.
It’s true that if a viewer goes into excruciating detail about all the faults in a show, he or she is bound to feel that the execution is not perfect. But perfect execution is not the problem with The People vs. O.J. Simpson, because the production is rarely even close to perfection. The problem with The People vs. O.J. Simpson is that the show sets an intense thematic bar for itself with the very first scene of the show, suggesting a very distinct path onto which it will take its viewers. However, very soon the viewer enters some sort of cognitive dissonance — we expect a show with some sort of solemn backdrop, but we’re visually assaulted by decisions that make us laugh. The inability to follow through with the thematic contract the show signed in the first scene leaves The People vs. O.J. Simpson close to commendable, but not quite memorable.
Harini Kanna is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].