- "TV: Not a Victorian Novel," from Phil Maciak
- "The Pitiable Fool v. 'the Suave Void,'" from Lili Loofbourow
TV: Not a Victorian Novel
By Phil Maciak
There’s something about recent historical fiction that has a certain charge to it. Every fiction about real life is, to some degree or another, an historical one, but works like The People v. OJ Simpson signal their genre well and clearly. This is a period series about a period only fairly recently elapsed. And it’s hard not to feel as though we have been living through something like a golden age — or at least a “high” period — of only-just-historical filmmaking on this model. Spotlight, with its uncanny pleated khakis, just won an Oscar for Best Picture. The Big Short has a similar period flavor despite being set in the mid-oughts. Before that, The Wolf of Wall Street, Zero Dark Thirty, Moneyball, The Fighter, The Social Network (and I’m only naming Best Picture nominees) all films depicting events of the past 20 years or so with an unmistakeable historical gaze. I’m drawing a distinction here — maybe you’ll disagree — between films about things that recently happened and films that understand themselves to be historical films about things that recently happened. They trade in on both the implied wisdom of such a perspective (let’s understand what happened in only recently achieved hindsight), but they also trade in on the crossed-wires of recognition and sudden distance that come from recasting memory as history. For we are not done with any of these histories, and they are not done with us. 9/11 was neither the beginning nor the end of an historical period, and the killing of Osama Bin Laden neither began nor ended the War on Terror, and we are still mired, if not more deeply than we were then, in the ethics and consequences of those events and the ones that preceded them that were not so visible. The great recession has not receded from a political present preoccupied with the inequities of “Wall Street.” Hot takes are still being, uh, taken about sabermetrics in baseball. Priests are still getting away with it. And Facebook is open in my browser window now. The most generous read on these films isn’t that they absolve us of the past but that they bracket off, interpret, and screen for us an earlier moment of the period we now occupy. They can, if they work, make us self-conscious about how little has changed, how much we don’t know still, how present our history must be to us now.
The People v. OJ Simpson is maybe the masterpiece of this newly-re-energized genre, and, in Public Books, last week, the literary scholar Nicholas Dames suggested an origin for what he calls this “slight historicity” of Murphy’s series. It’s worth quoting at length:
Artists resurrecting the era of their youth—like The People v. OJ Simpson’s directors, Ryan Murphy (born 1965), John Singleton (1968), and Anthony Hemingway (1977)—with the nuanced psychology and novelistic intimacies usually reserved for the present: this is more neo-Victorian than any Julian Fellowes adaptation, despite the surface dissimilarity between the show and any Victorian novel. At the same time, these shows manage a complex double address, partially nostalgic, aimed toward those old enough to recall the period first-hand, and partially exoticizing, aimed toward those young enough to find this recent past a slightly foreign country.
This last part especially, is a tremendously evocative way of describing the feel of this series. It’s a pointed feat to make a viewer feel nostalgia about an event only moments after reminding them how long ago that event occurred. There’s a temporal taffy-pull at work in structuring our relationship to these events as an historical one. But, at the same time, this passage is also evocative of a troublingly long-lived trend. That is, it suggests that the things we find great/interesting/new about this show are things the show has inherited from the Victorian novel.
I think we can (and should!) all acknowledge the degree to which Victorian seriality — and the social and psychological sweep of the realist novel more broadly — has played a crucial role in the development of serial television. TV creators themselves love to cite Dickens or invoke the “novelistic” to describe why their series are structured the way they are. This argument has been circulating for decades, and it’s a good one as far as it goes. But, tempting as it might be to call this settled law and no longer a new insight into the workings of the 21st century’s, so far, most dominant art form, it still reappears with regularity in popular criticism. Media influence each other, and we can and should explore that network of influences, but the novel’s monopoly on second-order analyses of contemporary television has become a stifling rather than illuminating intellectual turn. In other words, the Victorian novel is often presented as the solution to the problem of our aesthetic appreciation of television. Saying that this series has “nuanced psychology and novelistic intimacy,” is another way of saying, “It’s Not TV, it’s HBO,” constructing taste hierarchies that feel organic rather than artificial. But let’s also acknowledge that there is a profound anxiety in this particular claim for critics and showrunners alike, a low-key defensiveness about an apparently fraught cultural ground. For as long as we’ve been living in this new “golden age” of television, scholars and critics have been insisting on explaining their praise by way of the novel. We ought to resist the gravitational pull of this familiar planet — call it Planet V — or at the very least, use it to slingshot somewhere new.
For all of the echoing of Victorian historicity that one may find in The People v. OJ Simpson, it is so very very much a television series. More than that even, it is so very very much a work of audiovisual media. Ask even a casual viewer to name something distinctive about this show. What will they notice? Maybe they’ll notice the occasionally heretical sound cues. “Fight the Power” as the jury protests. “Sabotage” during the Bronco chase. The non-triumphant half of “Feeling Good” as Clark and Darden exit stage left. They might be nauseated or exhilarated by the constant movement of Murphy’s whip-panning, crash-zooming camera. They might — as Sarah and I did when the show first premiered — remark upon the electrical zap of recognizable nineties actors playing recognizable nineties icons. They might even notice the way this show creates drama, suspense even, by inverting the resonance of the cliffhanger to play with our anticipation of things we already know will happen. These cues connote some of the “slight historicity” that Dames attributes to the show’s Victorian inheritance, but they are unmistakably televisual (or, at least, cinematic) sparks.
This may seem like a trivial distinction, or a distinction that is itself defensive. (It me!) This show isn’t novelistic because it’s a TV show. Pictures aren’t words — duh! And maybe that is what I’m saying here, but I don’t think it’s wrong to discount the difference in this particular work’s “double address,” as Dames so rightly puts it, when we are in the realm of the visual. This show is preoccupied with the trial’s constant mediation as well as that mediation’s legacy for us in the present. Indeed, those of us who experienced the trial did so mostly as media consumers, watching un-edited, raw footage of Lance Ito’s courtroom. Murphy repeatedly reproduces that televisual view, toggling back and forth between the surveillance camera frame broadcast on E! Entertainment Television and the frame of his contemporary camera. Aside from a case of can’t-help-myself, I suspect this is why Murphy keeps his camera moving so frenetically, with such spastic obsession. It’s shaking off the stillness of the TV footage, reminding us of the difference, marking one as archival, one as artful.
To my viewing, it’s this re-mediation of this already mediated event that makes The People v. OJ feel almost scandalous to watch. Not only is this event now history, now able to be the subject of historical fiction, but behold how brazenly it is man-handled. Watch as Ryan Murphy re-edits the Bronco chase you watched live at home! Marvel as he turns Robert Kardashian, that least charismatic of television personalities, into a study of the moral decay of a Good Man! Thrill as our once staid, still view of the courtroom is literally flipped upside down! Since the OJ trial, our media environment has seismically shifted. We have seen, most notably, the dawn of the Reality TV age. And, visually, what that looks like is not dissimilar from what we see in The People v. OJ: recognizable celebrities or semi-celebrities laid bare before the gaze of the camera. Murphy by no means recasts the trial in the specific stylistic mode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians — though I would definitely watch that version — but by foregrounding his own visual style, reminding us, to some extent, of the show’s artifice even as it claims to reveal the Truth, he brings out what was latent (or only just being born) in those original trial broadcasts. As much as this show is a reenactment of the OJ trial, it’s also an autopsy of the “infotainment” era — Murphy uses that word in the captions at the end of the series — in which we all reside.
This is why it’s so extraordinary that, in this last episode, we say goodbye to so many of our players as they’re entangled in this very set of complicated, constitutive mediations. (It’s not unique to the finale, but these scenes bear extra, maybe accumulated weight here at the end.) The last time we see John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, he’s on TV admitting to and then disavowing the “race card” strategy as OJ watches with his family at home. The family boos, but OJ explains to them the way that Shapiro is manipulating the media, and thus this particular set of viewers as well. The last time we see Johnnie Cochran, he’s watching Bill Clinton address police brutality on TV. “That’s the victory,” he says, acknowledging the power of the image of a white president addressing race, broadcast to millions of people. And even our last shot of OJ himself is as a spectator again. He’s not watching TV, but he’s gazing up at his own statue, at the representation of his own fame and legend.
The People v. OJ Simpson isn’t a group biopic or even necessarily a true crime show. It’s a backstage drama about the making of a TV show. And it’s a TV show with life or death stakes, but it’s also a TV show — as Johnnie Cochran is quick to point out — with stakes at the level of American race relations, at the level of the institutions that keep Americans safe or keep them living in fear. It is, in other words, an important TV show. And the position of the defense is that that argument is only able to be made on TV, with these characters, at this pace, with this captive, captivated audience, and at this very particular and heinous cost. The decisions are narrative decisions, decisions about optics, decisions about casting, decisions about visibility. The prosecution’s failing — the people’s failing — might be in not recognizing that it’s a TV show. The defense wins, here, because they understand the specificity of their medium. And that’s not a trivial thing.
If the gloves are too small, easy call,
The Pitiable Fool vs. "the Suave Void"
By Lili Loofbourow
I’m troubled by Cuba Gooding Jr.’s OJ.
It’s been bothering me for awhile. Not Gooding, who’s a terrific actor. Not his affability, not the absence of any resemblance between him and Simpson, not even Gooding’s comparatively un-menacing affect — all objections that have been discussed and rebutted at length. No, what bothers me is a reactivity he brings to the performance that goes too deep and torques the show’s dramatic consequences. Simpson was a terrific liar and a poor actor; Gooding plays him as the opposite. Simpson’s face was chiseled, handsome, and — like many handsome chiseled faces — remarkably good at remaining still. He was charming, but he was also unflappable (until he lost control, which rarely happened in public). Gooding’s Simpson, even at his most neutral, remains astonishingly expressive. He pouts. He cries. He flaps. The real Simpson was opaque; Gooding’s is transparent.
It’s a minor issue, perhaps, but sufficiently disconcerting that it derailed me as a viewer and indirectly cost me dozens of hours. Dear TV, I’ve been reading books and court records about this case since The People Vs. OJ Simpson began, because I’m a murder mystery junkie and an obsessive fact-checker and this case tickled all my worst impulses. Still, it was only during the finale that I was tempted to seek out actual footage of the trial. I hadn’t had the urge to do that before — definitely not while the trial was going on, not in the aftermath, and not now. But one scene pushed me out of the show and into the archives. It’s the moment when the extraordinary Sterling K. Brown delivers Christopher Darden’s quiet, powerful “the fuse is burning” speech during his closing (which is much more powerful in Brown’s hands than in the real Darden’s). Gooding’s Simpson tears up as Brown’s Darden narrates the events of that evening. Those tears are bombshells, right? I’ve been Googling “did Simpson tear up during Darden’s closing” every few minutes ever since, even as I started writing this. Because — and this is why Gooding’s performance troubles me — that strikes me as a monumentally important detail. In Murphy’s show, those tears aren’t just a confession, though they are that. They register a crisis of conscience. They register remorse, regret. And if that’s there — if that really happened — it’s huge.
Google was no help, so I finally tracked down the actual footage. Compare Gooding’s performance to 5:22:00 or so in this Youtube clip of the prosecution’s closing arguments. You’ll see the relevant section of Darden’s speech. The camera zooms in on Simpson. Here he is:
Expressivity is a very particular kind of vulnerability, Dear Television. There are many ways to appear vulnerable, many ways to shade the “realism” of these True Events and the people on whom they’re based. I contend that this particular choice serves Simpson and The People Vs. OJ Simpson — an otherwise truly brilliant show — poorly. Gooding’s lachrymose Simpson doesn’t work in a story that revolves around his star power. Here, for contrast, is how the real Simpson looked while he was trying on the gloves used to murder his ex-wife:
OJ Simpson is a peculiar, narcissistic, charming, self-pitying, violent, talented, confident, shallow and intelligent man. Gooding’s Simpson is melancholic, pitiable, and — this is the real problem — foolish.
One question lurking under this critique, of course — as Sarah pointed out when the series began — is whether Simpson should be portrayed as vulnerable — how vulnerability affects not just our dramatic but our real belief in OJ Simpson’s guilt. She saw Simpson’s body registering his isolation in the premiere: the shot of his back conveyed, among other things, a black man’s vulnerability in a white system. This is a fascinating point, especially since the cinematic display of black men’s bare backs has so frequently been used to show their power — their musculature — and their scars. But it’s telling, isn’t it, that Gooding’s back (Phil calls it “lumpen”) communicates neither? Simpson actually wasn’t particularly muscular or vulnerable in this systemic sense; he was the noteworthy exception. He specifically doesn’t fit the narrative the defense crafted for him. That’s why the trial, and this reenactment, are so gripping.
There are other reasons we watch too, of course. Reflecting in her book on why people were so mesmerized by the spectacles of Simpson and Cowling in the Bronco and herself and Christopher Darden and Johnnie Cochran in court, Marcia Clark wrote that “the lure, I suppose, is the honesty of an uncertain outcome.” She’s right, and characteristically eloquent and succinct. Still, Clark’s explanation doesn’t translate to the present. The event and its dramatization are precisely opposite genres. We may have been watching for the honesty of an uncertain outcome then, but why are we watching now? There is simply no genre more frustratingly certain, more lacking in suspense, than a reenactment. So why — really, why — has this show been such exceptionally good TV?
One reason is that there was no settled outcome. Simpson was found guilty in the civil suit and not guilty in the criminal case, but neither of those ostensibly definitive results translated to our larger understanding of what happened on that June evening in 1994. “Innocent or guilty?” is still being answered both ways. Neither the prosecution nor the defense ever rested (cf. all the books they’ve written about the case since). This is living history in every possible sense of the word, and whenever anyone heard about this show, their first question was: which way would OJ Simpson be portrayed? Would he be innocent, or would he be guilty?
Ryan Murphy could have milked that for tension and stakes. Instead, he dispensed with the question deftly and with remarkable confidence: Simpson is guilty. Schwimmer’s vomit after the verdict testifies to that just as much as Gooding’s tears did during the closing, but there was no real ambiguity, even earlier, about the show’s point of view. PVOJ’s heroes are unquestionably Brown’s Darden and Sarah Paulson’s transcendent Marcia Clark. Those are the weights, those are the parameters. Still, within that framework, the show helps us out of that stark dichotomy and refocuses our attention on the crosscurrents that develop in any closed system — which the Simpson case certainly was. In particular, it dramatizes Darden’s deep understanding of the racial battleground and his position within it, Clark’s power in court despite the ostracism and loneliness and fame, and Cochran’s spectacularly amoral approach to a moral cause to which he remains sincerely committed. (Cochran and Darden were electric onscreen as they fought explicitly over evidence and obliquely over “the community.” I love that Cochran’s offer to reintegrate Darden was made with both good intentions and extraordinary arrogance, and I love that Darden replied “I never left.” Those are not new conversations about race, but they are important new additions to the tired discursive loop race ran around this case.) Most importantly, perhaps, the show conceded OJ Simpson’s guilt without granting that concession the central ground it has implicitly occupied for so long in America.
Here’s what I mean by that: despite essentially stipulating Simpson’s guilt, the show makes clear that there is much, much more to say, and its approach was even-handed and accretive: Simpson is guilty and the LAPD is racist against black men whose tennis courts they don’t use and whose autographs they don’t seek. Cochran’s larger cause was good and he made a difference and he was abusive and he was, for all intents and purposes, a bigamist. Barry Scheck exonerates prisoners through the Innocence Project largely through the use of DNA and he played a significant role in invalidating its evidentiary value in the Simpson case. The LAPD was incompetent and starstruck and it harbored racists and framed innocent men. OJ Simpson was a murderer and he was driven mad — temporarily — by grief. Mark Fuhrman was a racist and, on this occasion at least, did fine detective work. There is nothing timid about these once-incompatible assertions in PVOJ: Murphy dove deep into a national wound that still hasn’t scarred and substituted “ands” for the criminal justice system’s inexorable list of “ors.”
The result is pretty damn great. I don’t think I’ve ever been more impressed by an adaptation. Dramatizing the OJ Simpson trial without committing horrific missteps is as likely as crocheting a pillowcase out of boiling water, and yet here we are. My expectations were so low. It looked (as Sarah said) so tawdry.
But now that it’s over, I’m amazed at how much The People Vs. OJ Simpson did well, and at how much great material it resisted using. Like I said, I ended up reading books about the case (including Simpson’s and Fuhrman’s and Clark’s) for the same reason I finally looked up the trial footage: Can this possibly have happened? In most cases the answer was: Yes, and then some. PVOJ turned out to be not just responsible, but selective and illuminating. It was more nuanced and thoughtful about race than, say, The Wire. It had more to say about our difficult national history than Mad Men. It had smarter stuff to say about gender than The Good Wife or Jessica Jones. Now, that’s partly because these other shows are morally ambitious fictions. I love a lot of morally ambitious fictions, but however politically satisfying they might be — look at how far Peggy Olson has come! — they are a little like vitamins: unregulated by the FDA so you should be careful about the ingredients even if, on the whole, they’re good for you. They inevitably drift into caricature when depicting the societies whose evils they seek to expose. PVOJ is — strangely enough — a restrained treatment of everything that actually happened. It is absolutely grotesque, but it is honestly (not aesthetically) so. The events were grotesque. And when it does skew artsy or operatic, even its pretensions are straightforward: its melodramatic overreach lives, like Travolta’s eyebrows, on the surface: visible, obvious.
As I write that, it sounds awfully safe, but PVOJ actually took some interesting risks. It was a caustic stroke of genius, for instance, to follow Marcia’s perm-related humiliation — the collapse of her “Kiss From a Rose” fantasy of her new self — with an elevator shot of Fuhrman from the back, focusing on his freshly cut, absolutely perfect head of hair. (A less successful choice was the scene of Fuhrman fondling swastikas in silence — cf. melodramatic overreach.)
But those shinier, excessive touches — the love story between Clark and an irresistible Darden in particular — only heightened the extent to which this trial and this show were about work. Sarah Paulson played Marcia Clark as a warrior: she took her hits, and they hurt, but she never stopped. To juxtapose her grit under fire with Mark Fuhrman’s hair is sheer insanity, but it worked: it highlighted his polish and her damage, and somehow her character reaped the benefits and sprang back to life. I was shocked by how inspiring I found watching her get knocked down over and over again only in order to pop right back up, Dear TV. I might finally understand why people enjoy boxing. Paulson’s Clark offered an overdue portrayal of a woman I’d only ever encountered in jokes and cruel parodies, and she was, to me, a revelation. (And the TV version was actually less of a badass than the real Clark, who was extremely ill for weeks on end during the trial — a fact Paulson’s perfect face never registers.)
I don’t want to overstate my quibbles with Gooding (who I find delightful) or the OJ Simpson he and Murphy came up with, but I do think their choices, their way into Simpson’s vulnerability, actually hampered the character in ways that didn’t make sense given the issues in play. There is a lot one could write about how expressivity scans as weakness in modern culture — how it’s feminized and lumped in with other traits we associate with irrationality or inferiority or vulnerability. But the brand of unstable, reactive vulnerability Gooding performs is the kind underpinned by what, for lack of a better word, I’ll call heart. The real OJ Simpson has his faults, but a lack of equanimity, especially in public, wasn’t one of them. When James Wolcott said of Simpson’s “hypothetical confession” that, “despite its animating anger, it's a book that projects a strange lack of affect, a suave void,” he could have been describing Simpson himself. There are other phrases there that seem apt: “studied informality,” “coached candor,” “rehearsed intimacy.” Does Gooding’s frank face, the sincerity of his performance, call up any of those impressions?
I submit that it doesn’t.
There are other reasons why Gooding’s portrayal matters. For one, domestic violence is a crime committed in private: “The abuser is often described as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality. He can be very personable at times and, to people on the outside, he may seem to be a great guy.” It’s a pattern that oscillates between control and rage at the perceived lack of it. Simpson was a product and a star of his time. He had polish. Gooding’s face transforms erratically. It’s responsive. Simpson’s wasn’t.
That may seem nitpicky, Dear Television, but I think it matters. It matters legally, because Gooding’s volatility made it hard to imagine the aforementioned pattern, which depends in part on forms of repression that might erupt into the screams overheard during Nicole Brown Simpson’s 911 call. It matters dramatically, because Simpson’s emotional breakdown during the Bronco chase needed to function as an exception. It should have been neither a Jekyll nor a Hyde moment but the defining crisis: a breakage, a rift, a contrast. Gooding’s Simpson is so open and raw that in retrospect, that outburst seems rather natural, consistent with his demeanor generally. And finally, it matters because it speaks to Simpson’s intelligence. The fact is, OJ Simpson is much smarter than his portrayal on the show or indeed, in Jeffrey Toobin’s book, would suggest.
Toobin sneers just a little at Simpson’s near-illiteracy in the book in which PVOJ is based — he reproduces the “suicide note” verbatim, with all its spelling and grammar errors, and offers an interesting close reading of one telling omission. (What Simpson actually wrote — which Schwimmer’s Bob Kardashian corrects and reads as “First, everyone understand that I had nothing to do with Nicole’s murder” is actually “First everyone understand nothing to do with Nicole’s murder.”) Toobin suggests that the missing “I had” is telling.
Don’t get me wrong: this is a tempting game to play. The part of the note that caught my eye, for instance, was “my momma tought me to do un to other.” As a Miltonist obsessed with Milton’s habit of using the prefix “un” to forewarn you of the verb to come — and to do so in a way that makes it impossible for you to remain innocent of it, even though you were forewarned — I find Simpson’s use of it fascinating. To do UN to others is a startling inversion of the saying, almost a slip into the undoing of which he stood accused. It’s abstract, and it’s marvelous.
It’s also, of course, neither here nor there. A bad speller is not stupid, and I was surprised, once I started watching actual footage, to find that the real Simpson, unlike Gooding’s, was a gifted and commanding speaker. In interviews about the case, he’s on point and astute. He has witness’ names at his fingertips. He recites the facts of the case fluently and reinterprets them with ease. When he isn’t offering strategically blank or engagingly implausible denials, he makes cogent, even subtle arguments. If you watch his interview with Ross Becker, you might notice that Simpson absolutely does lose his poise just a touch after an hour or so of being grilled, but it takes that long. Until then he’s pleasant, he’s brilliantly controlled, and he’s a genius at the art of the flat assertion, at denial, at reframing.
This disparity between Simpson's intelligence and Gooding's interpretation explains the weakest directorial move of the series: that final scene with OJ Simpson in his bathroom. In that scene, Simpson’s back is visible a second time (the first time was in the premiere). So is his naked body — which really drives home Sarah’s prescient point about how Simpson’s body in the premiere registered his isolation. It’s a long moment, well acted, but its failure to land is structural. The suggestion seems to be that we’re being granted hitherto forbidden access to Simpson’s interiority. It falls flat because this simply isn’t the case — Simpson has been basically available to us all along, even through his transparent denials. His tears during the verdict were far more revelatory than that long look in the bathroom. For another: there just isn’t enough intellectual heft to Gooding’s Simpson to fill in whatever that moment of introspection is supposed to register. That final shot of Simpson gazing up at his statue feels similarly hollow. It should, I think, feel tragic: the fallen man gazing up at his sometime heroism. It’s a great image and a great idea. But tragedy is only available to those with the intelligence and depth to feel it. PVOJ’s Simpson isn’t, and — remember Christopher Darden crying? — it was never his tragedy anyway.
I don’t know why they were here, so I don’t know why I’m here,
Lili Loofbourow is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley working on Milton and 17th-century theories of eating and reading. She tweets at @millicentsomer, blogs at Excremental Virtue, and writes TV criticism over at Dear Television along with Jane Hu, Phillip Maciak, and Evan Kindley. You can sometimes find her at The Awl, The Hairpin, and The New Inquiry.
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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