The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story
Given the benefit of hindsight, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the writing team responsible for all ten episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson, have the opportunity to litter their scripts with historical ironies. And that’s a lot of the fun of watching the show: We can snicker knowingly as the characters say or do things that contrast sharply with how events will ultimately play out.
But that power can be abused if an irony lands too heavily and crosses what I’ll call “The Picasso Line,” so dubbed for the scene in Titanic where Billy Zane, scoffing at his fiancée’s art collection, says “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing!”
So, here are two slices of irony from “The Dream Team,” one that crosses the Picasso Line and one that doesn’t:
1. The presence of the Kardashian kids in The People v. O.J. Simpson has been a matter of some dispute, but the argument for including them is compelling. If this is a show about how the impact of the O.J. trial still reverberates in today’s culture, then it makes sense to include the most famous people connected to it. The Kardashians are the Flying Wallendas of this media circus, so the younger generation is crucial to asserting the relevancy of the case in 2016. If I were a judge in a courtroom drama, I would say, “I want to see where this is going, counselor. But you’re on a very short leash.”
“The Dream Team” opens with the worst scene of the series so far, as Robert Kardashian and the kids stride into a crowded restaurant for a Father’s Day brunch. Robert gets recognized for the first time (“You’re Richard Kardovian!”) and the Kardashian clan gets a table ahead of the line, enjoying their first sweet, maple-syrup-drizzled taste of fame. Robert finds his kids’ excitement unseemly, given his devastation over Nicole’s murder and his blinkered conviction that “Uncle Juice” is innocent. “We are Kardashians,” he announces. “And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart.”
Papa Kardashian warning his future famous-for-being-famous kids about the hollowness of fame dances all over the Picasso Line. Having O.J. threaten to shoot himself in “Kimmie’s bedroom” was an irresistible historical nugget — not terribly relevant at the time, but an amazing intersection of past and present now that Kim Kardashian is breaking the internet. But Robert’s fame speech is too much. Perhaps his earnestness in this moment is meant to humanize him, but the true purpose of the scene is a broadside against his now-grown kin. (Who reportedly enjoy the show, by and large!)
2. “The Dream Team” is about the formulation of what would become a winning strategy for the defense: to contest every piece of physical evidence and transform the case into a referendum on institutional racism within the LAPD. But while presenting this new plan to his client, Robert Shapiro cannot bring himself to say the word black, so he comes up with the most wondrously byzantine euphemism imaginable. They need to add a litigator, he says to O.J., “one who fits the particular developing circumstances in the downtown venue.” The “particular developing circumstances in the downtown venue” is that the trial will not take place in nearby Santa Monica, which would surely yield an all-white jury of Simpson’s rich neighbors. It will take place downtown, which will yield jurors of color, who may be more sympathetic to their defense.
Shapiro’s line is a much subtler, funnier historical irony. He’s proposing a strategy to cleave the jury — and the country — along racial lines, but he’s so uncomfortable talking about race, he cannot say black, or even African-American. Our national conversation about race is so timid, Karaszewski and Alexander imply, that Shapiro even tiptoes around his plans to exploit it. And beyond that, O.J.’s own willingness to identify himself as black takes some persuasion from the team. He objects strenuously to appointing Johnnie Cochran: “You wanna make this a black thing … I’m not black. I’m O.J.!” Karaszewski and Alexander are making essential points here, both about the cynicism of the Simpson defense strategy and the difficulty America has in confronting racial issues. They are solidly on the right side of the Picasso Line here.
Overall, “The Dream Team” is an immensely entertaining hour, though it casts serious doubt on the notion that the creators of The People v. O.J. Simpson are neutral on question of O.J.’s guilt. What we witness from Shapiro and the defense team isn’t an assertion of innocence, but the formulation of a strategy to taint the overwhelming evidence of their client’s guilt. A few minutes into the episode, Clark and Shapiro are in agreement on the facts: “With this kind of physical evidence and a run for the border, [O.J.] did my job for me,” Clark says. “We’ve got a streak of blood going from the murder scene to O.J.’s bedroom,” Shapiro gripes. The prosecution is guilty of arrogance and hubris, of course, but they don’t have the benefit of hindsight. All they have is … the motive, the blood evidence, the gloves, the history of domestic violence, the near-confession of the suicide note, and the attempt to flee justice. “All the aces,” as Clark puts it.
But the question of O.J.’s guilt isn’t the purpose of The People v. O.J. Simpson. This show is more concerned with understanding the Hollyweird confluence of race, celebrity, and media that made the trial such an enduring fiasco. The Simpson defense strategy — casting doubt on every piece of DNA evidence, highlighting the institutional racism of the LAPD and the well-documented racism of Detective Mark Fuhrman, hiring Cochran to “fit the particular developing circumstances in the downtown venue” — may taint the facts of the case, but it doesn’t erase them. The show’s mission is to reflect why that strategy found purchase, and keep us asking what that says about the state of the country and the justice system, both then and now. Those interested in figuring out whether O.J. did it are welcome to track down his book, If I Did It. (Or read the PDF.)
- In contrast to the Kardashians, who would become famous years later, Kato Kaelin discovers his fame during the trial and fades thereafter. Billy Magnussen isn’t the subtlest Kaelin, to say the least, but the scene of him attracting a carload of flashing ladies and the invective (and spittle) of passing joggers has a great punch line: “Fame’s complicated.” If he were Jeff “the Dude” Lebowski, the line would be, “That’s just, like, your opinion, man.”
- “Uncle Juice.” Schwimmer’s ability to find the pathos in a man who utters those words with absolute sincerity continues to make his performance a marvel.
- The Time magazine cover, with its “chiaroscuro” graphic scheme, was indeed a source of controversy. And though the show seems to give its designer the benefit of the doubt — trapped, haunted, “the falling of an idol” — the association of blackness with criminality was hard to miss in 1994 and equally hard to miss now.
- “How do you shut Dershowitz up?” Would that it weren’t so expensive for the rest of us.
- As Shapiro and “The Dream Team” formulate their strategy — with an unwitting assist from The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin — we can see how much it catches Clark, Garcetti, and the prosecution team off-guard. They’ll make some crucial mistakes later, but this episode suggests they could never hope to contain the forces gathering around this case. The LAPD’s reputation, the “cash for trash” testimonials, the leaks of Nicole Brown Simpson’s 911 calls — those were circumstances beyond their control.
- Christopher Darden believes in the case against O.J., but he finds himself in the position of having to remind his overconfident peers that the black community might see things differently. The fact that they barely consider race a factor — the “downtown” venue is brushed off as a minimal risk — is a fatal strike against the prosecution. Clark sobers up by the end of the episode, but the absolute faith that they will prevail is still too strong.
- During the enormously powerful scene between O.J. and Cochran, Karaszewski and Alexander write a turn of phrase that gets at O.J.’s state of mind. Cochran needs to look his client in the eye and hear him say he didn’t do it, but as written, the line isn’t quite the same. O.J. doesn’t say, “I didn’t do it.” He says, “There’s no way I could have done it,” which is oddly dissociative, like he’s talking about some other, more sinister side of himself. He seems encased in denial.