Are We Not Kardashians?: On "The People v. OJ Simpson"
American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson is maybe the cheekiest show about the paralyzing, mystifying power of celebrity, sexism in the workplace, the complexity of divorce, reality TV, media ethics, the exploitation of friendship, police corruption, domestic abuse, American race relations, and murder I’ve ever seen. It’s probably also the only show I’ve ever seen that’s about all of those things at the same time.
The Wire, for what it’s worth, was about a lot of those things, not always simultaneously. PVOJ — which is how I’m abbreviating this academic monograph of a title — is no Wire, but it’s got a different ambition, I think. Part of the pleasure and moral charge of The Wire is that it presents us as viewers with an impossibly large, contradictory, set of overlapping systems and patiently teaches us how to navigate them, to find or lose our own way in the tall grass. PVOJ’s mode is excess; it wants us to be overwhelmed by its overlapping systems rather than understand them. It’s over-directed (I think the zoom button is stuck on Ryan Murphy’s camera — somebody help him out!), it’s sometimes infuriatingly on-the-nose with its messaging, its tone fluctuates all over the place, it’s ridiculous and it’s deeply serious, it’s morally outraged and utterly apathetic, it wants to say something real about Black Lives Matter and it wants to make fun of the Kardashians. But if there’s something messy about its ambition, there’s also something brilliant about its mess.
SARAH: Phil! I must tell you that when you said, “hey, let’s watch this OJ thing!” my enthusiastic response was not based on the show itself, but rather my sense that whither Phil goest, I will go. All I initially knew about the show was the great looming billboards I drive under everyday on Sunset Boulevard, and they triggered in me a deep sense of anxiety that I have only now, post viewing, put my finger on: the show looked tawdry. Or rather, it looked like my least favorite kind of show, the kind that asks its audience to delight in other people’s tawdryness; the kind that asks us to feel superior and to judge, to roll around in our most classist and moralizing selves. I hate that shit! (Which, Phil, is why I never watch anything Kardashian). But I am happy to report that even if this show is about mass culture’s desire for tawdriness, and even if many of the characters within it are quite Tawdry (John Travolta, I am looking at you!), the show itself doesn’t ask us to indulge in that judgy pleasure. I am fully going to agree with you that PVOJ, even as it careens half-off the rails like some kind of ill-planned monorail, is accomplishing something amazing.
I’m not sure what it is, though. Partly it’s the handling of race, which we should definitely talk about in a minute. But let’s go first to the casting — which takes us pretty quickly to the plastic surgery. Phil, what is up with John Travolta, with the way this show asks us to look at his face as a re-made thing? Truly, the first moment I saw him, I thought it was Arnold Schwarzenegger. Watching this show makes me want to do a lot of googling: is his face make-up? Does Travolta actually look like this now? Another way of saying this is that the show pushes me to think about my own tawdry interest in the bodies — specifically the aging, failing bodies — of celebrities.
PHIL: It was one kind of delight, in the funeral scene, to realize that Selma Blair was playing Kris Kardashian, but when they cut to Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, with Mrs. Coach’s aviators perched atop all of that botox! Ryan Murphy is a fan of the grotesque, obviously, and this is a grotesque story top to bottom, so it makes sense that he’d be drawn to the kind of non-supernatural dramatic material where many of the key players are already wearing masks. But you’re right to point to the way that bodies — real and fake, heroic and ordinary — are important to this show’s aesthetic. To some extent, the promise of a show like this is that you gain access to the Naked Truth — From the Files of Police Squad — and so that long slow zoom (again) on OJ’s shirtless back in the hotel room, or the focus on describing what Nicole Brown’s dead body looked like. These things are supposed to reflect the kind of narrative we’re getting.
But that’s all counter-balanced with the augmented, unreal bodies of Beverly Hills. And it’s made either campier or somehow more visceral to see these ghosts of the nineties embodied by recognizable celebrity bodies of the nineties. What’s the difference between the John Travolta who plays Vincent Vega in 1994 and the John Travolta who plays Robert Shapiro, between the David Schwimmer we know so intimately as Ross Gellar and the David Schwimmer who is now our Rob Kardashian, between the Selma Blair who was making out with Sarah Michelle Gellar in 1999 in Cruel Intentions and the Selma Blair playing the matriarch of the Kardashian family today? Is there any way to see Cuba Gooding Jr’s lumpen torso without traveling back to 1996’s virile Cuba Gooding Jr yelling at Tom Cruise to show him the money?
SARAH: The Vincent Vega comparison is exactly right, Phil — partly because it feels, for all the reasons you mention, like Ryan Murphy has taken a master class in casting from Quentin Tarantino. Both directors ask us to bring all the baggage we have regarding these bodies into play; in fact, the palimpsests of our own memories are the fuel driving most of these performances. Here, the uncanniness works to turn nostalgia itself into a kind of grotesquery. (One thing I want to mention here is the way the show lingers on our perplexed relation to surgically altered bodies seems not exactly to comment on, but certainly to be in dialogue with — in ways I’m still trying to parse — a transformation not yet on the scene in 1994 but very present to audiences in 2016: the transformation of Caitlyn Jenner.)
That said, I think that the casting of Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ Simpson is more or less brilliant, in that it makes us — makes me at least — predisposed to sympathy and trust towards the character. And that, of course, is how most people thought of OJ back in the nineties, as a fundamentally good guy. It’s hard for us to see OJ that way now, after all we’ve been through, but the casting makes it possible. In fact, when I first heard that Gooding had been cast I was shocked — did Murphy not think OJ was guilty? But from his first line of dialogue, we’re meant to be see him as out of control, suspicious: and it’s shocking, in the way the whole thing was shocking in 1994.
At other times, though, PVOJ’s casting makes viewing emotionally intense at the same time that I often felt that Murphy — and I guess this is often my response to Murphy — isn’t entirely in control of the emotions he’s generating. It is impossible for me to see David Schwimmer as anything more than a well-meaning doofus — what does that add to my response here?
PHIL: I think this all goes back to my initial point, which is that PVOJ seems to want us to multi-task, to feel or to experience a bunch of different things at once in shifting balance. Anger, hilarity, recognition, estrangement, nostalgia, regret, disgust. I think we see that most with the moments that appear, on the face, the most campy, the most winkingly superior. I don’t know if this show’s trick is that it’s trying to make us laugh and then feel bad for laughing, or if it’s trying, in a gentler way, to get us to think about the ethics and experience of being an omnivorous consumer of media. YouTube is where the cat videos and the videos of police violence are. When David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian begs “Juice” not to shoot himself in his daughter Kimmy’s bedroom, it’s a kind of hysterical moment, and not exclusively in the “funny” sense of that word. Sure, Ryan Murphy’s trying to get us to gut laugh about a grim alternate history in which one celebrity icon blows his brains out in the childhood bedroom of a totally different, no less infamous celebrity icon. And, at that level of text, it seems like PVOJ is playing with characters who are merely the sum of our cultural knowledge about them. But, at the same time, Schwimmer and Gooding are so great in this scene, and the weirdo fragility of that detail — calling him Juice even as his life hangs in the balance — was really moving to me. This is about celebrity and gossip, but it’s also about friendship and fear. Maybe “famous people are people too” isn’t the most important social insight we’ll come across on television this year, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a social insight all the same. And, even as it toggles to showy camp arias, this show is filled with small moments and grace notes that lend an unusual profundity to the proceedings.
SARAH: To me, what was most amazing about the scene was “Kimmy’s” New Kids on the Block posters in the wall. The show starts with the idea of celebrity — the limo driver agog at OJ’s presence, OJ sentimental about Willie Mays — and at this key emotional moment, we’re drawn into the aesthetic world of 1994 through the vehicle of a not-yet-famous Kim Kardashian’s fandom. If the posters are a barometer of her bad taste, they’re also a measure of her innocence — and ours. Even as so much in this world is rotten, we’re also asked to see in it a kind of pre-lapsian hopefulness, maybe? Is that what’s going on with the campiness?
PHIL: I’m curious, Sarah, to know what your memory of the OJ trial is. It seems like this show is really doing a lot of work with its audience’s nostalgia for and faulty/incomplete memory of what happened. (I think that’s where a lot of the staginess comes from — this is a re-enactment, at its heart.) All of my memories are TV memories, and the show is great at capturing at least this aspect of the collective experience of this saga. I was visiting my Uncle and Aunt’s house in Texas for the Bronco chase (we were watching golf just like Christopher Darden’s dad). And I would watch the trial on E! with my mom after school. As much as Murphy, Karaszewski, and Alexander want to show us what it was like for Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, even OJ himself, they also seem to want to remind us of what it was like for us.
SARAH: Okay, first I want to mention that I’m loving this insight to the continued history of the Maciak family televisual habits (were you watching the trial with your mom at the same time you watched the X-Files with your dad?!). I watched the Bronco chase with my parents too, and my brother — in a hotel room in Colorado. Guess why we were in a hotel room, Phil? I’ll tell you: because we were on our way to Los Angeles, where we were spending the summer! We were venturing west from rural Iowa, and watching the strange non-exciting dramedy of OJ’s Bronco chase was a very strange introduction to a city of which I was already, in my midwestern way, deeply suspicious. So it’s very funny for me to watch this now that I have become, as you know but some of our readers may not, a full-throated evangelist for Los Angeles. Watching it feels a lot like watching Transparent, really, or rewatching Six Feet Under or even Pulp Fiction. This is another way of saying that Los Angeles is a central character in PVOJ: we see Los Angeles as an uncanny figure of its evolving self just as much as we see Robert Kardashian as an uncanny Ross Geller. Everyone’s revisiting their past, their childhood: everyone’s watching a tawdry tragedy with their mom.
PHIL: To that end, I bet we’re going to get at least one cutaway of the Kardashian kids watching the Bronco at home with their mom. (There’s a very prominent Kardashian Kids Watching TV moment in the second episode.) But, here again, I’m unexpectedly affected by this show. I’m two years younger than Kim and a year older than Khloe, so, aside from their personal relationship to Nicole Brown and OJ Simpson as family friends, they have consciousnesses that are as developed as my consciousness was at that time. But, more than that, we know who they are now. Maybe the show wants to make a sour point that watching this unfurl on TV and in their living room made them who they are. But I think the show is also just as ready to say that watching this unfurl on TV is something that made all of us who we are. The OJ trial is the adolescence of our media culture. The Kardashian kids may be a tangential part of this grand drama, but their presence brings it into our present in a real way. Of all of these famous characters, these budding selfie artists are the ones we still know. Their spectatorship of these events — even for contemporary viewers who aren’t as neatly in the demographical bullseye as I am — transforms in a gnarly way into our spectatorship, present and past. Some people have called out these scenes for the way in which they score cheap points off of that family. But I don’t think it’s really about them; I think it’s about us. Their foibles are ours magnified, their experience of this history is ours, more intense, but no less mediated. In this limited circumstance, are we not Kardashians, too?
SARAH: I have little to add to that Phil, except to gesture solemnly again towards Kimmy’s NKOTB posters.
PHIL: Before we leave, I want to bring up something that’s been circulating around this show for a few weeks. In an interview, Jeffrey Toobin — the journalist who wrote the book on which the series is based — called the show, “a ten-hour trailer for Black Lives Matter.” One of the most striking things about the show is the way it begins: with archival footage of the Rodney King beating and other acts of police brutality from that era. Watching this grainy tape, it’s impossible not to think of the viral videos of Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott and others that have been the media catalyst for the emergence of Black Lives Matter as a movement in the past few years. And while we’re not yet to the trial itself — a future episode, helmed, notably, by Boyz n the Hood director John Singleton, is called “The Race Card” — you can see what Toobin’s trying to say. We’ve been talking about the way the series trades on its uncanny, almost organic relevance to the present moment, and this is maybe the most potentially meaningful way to improvise with that facet of the story. All the same, it felt like a kind of ham-handed — potentially cynical — way to describe this show’s admittedly complex racial politics. What do you think? Does PVOJ have as much to say about race as it does about celebrity or any of the other million things it’s about?
SARAH: Here’s what I would say about that: by beginning with the footage of the Rodney King riots, and then moving to Brentwood, we see a profoundly segregated Los Angeles. OJ moved through a largely white world, and the show, partly by featuring Cuba Gooding Jr’s body so viscerally, makes his vulnerability to that world deeply apparent. Even the moments that illustrate OJ’s physical power — and here I’m thinking of the detectives prowling through OJ’s yard and encountering the huge looming OJ statue — make us think about his isolation, his separation, his remove. The white world sees him as inherently, bodily, threatening; we’re asked to see him using his vulnerable body against entrenched systems of racialized, segregating power.
I actually just rewatched Naked Gun, Phil — the movie that first introduced me (and, I guess, Prosecutor Marcia Clark) to OJ. As you may recall, OJ is basically the only character of color, and the movie’s running gag is the ongoing abuse of OJ’s character’s body by the hapless Leslie Nielson/Frank Drebin. In 1988, Hollywood still thought it was funny, I guess, to watch a white cop beat up a black man who had no way to defend himself, all in the name of love? It’s not funny now, and — even if it isn’t thinking directly about Naked Gun — PVOJ is keenly aware of the quick changes of our own perception. I don’t know that I think PVOJ is some masterwork of racial commentary but I do think that it is trying to make its white audience see the whitewashing of OJ’s world, and of the powerful systems of erasure against which small bits of documentation like the Rodney King video can press. And I’m honestly eager to keep watching — to see where this goes.
So then: should we do our best and worst?
PHIL: Ok, so my Best, aside from everything I’ve said above, is that the performances on this show are phenomenal. Sarah Paulson is always amazing, and Courtney B. Vance is doing his pitch shifts — from grandiose to profound — so neatly. And Cuba Gooding Jr apologizing to the LAPD in the second episode is such a strange, beautiful pageant. But, I am all the way in the tank for Schwimmer here. Ross Gellar is BACK, and I really mean that. You brought the Schwimm up earlier, skeptically, but I think his presence does so much work on the show. By putting this actor who is so completely associated with one role, whose whole being exudes, not a set of character traits, but a set of character traits belonging to this one paleontologist from Manhattan, into the lead role with probably the lowest recognition value, Ryan Murphy has created some sort of lunatic genius. What I mean is that there’s a way that this Robert Kardashian IS Ross Gellar, and, inasmuch as he’s kind of the show’s moral center at least at first, it gives us as viewers a weird sense of lived-in intimacy. (But also a mild suspicion, inasmuch as we know Ross to be kind of an asshole.) The layers of this casting and this performance — SO VULNERABLE, ROSS! — are just endlessly fascinating to me.
SARAH: Oh wow, dude! Okay, so I am really compelled by that reading of Ross — but I can’t say I can get behind a lot of the performances here. And I particularly disliked Sarah Paulson! In fact, the Marcia Clark character is possibly my worst. I had entirely forgotten about her as a historical figure, and I don’t feel qualified to comment on whether or not this portrait is “accurate.” But to me, it’s less the racial commentary that felt ham-fisted than the staging of the angry lady divorcee, ambitious for a big case and eager to take revenge against the patriarchy through a case she (blindly, the show seems to me to hint) sees as only about gender and not at all about race or intersectionality.
That leaves my best to report, and I guess I have two. The first, very simply, is the pacing. This was gleefully absorbing; every scene hit a beat, and the audacity of the casting and the careful parceling out of the story kept me excited about how the story would unfold, even though we all already know what the story will be. Second, I loved Johnnie Cochran’s closet. This, for me, was the show at its best: the absurdity of his excessiveness was acknowledged as absurd but not condescended to. It’s easy to mock Johnnie Cochran; easy to find him (to go back to my original fear) tawdry. But the show — and here I’m pivoting back to the question of race, and the show’s sympathy towards the experience of black manhood — helps us see that Cochran is exactly right about at least one thing: his physical display matters.
PHIL: I agree about the pacing. This show can’t work at anything but top speed. But I have other issues with the aesthetic. In terms of my worst, the faux-Scorsese directorial style can get a little grating. Sometimes it’s wonderful — as in the Simpson hotel scene or the ridiculously brazen and ingenious editing and scoring of the Bronco chase in the second episode — but it can also start to feel repetitive and unimaginative. There’s plenty of profundity here, but the camerawork can be a little try-hard about milking that out of every moment. I almost wish this series had done the mildly trendy thing of bringing in a single director for the whole run. How great would Gus Van Sant have been shooting this? Or, if he’s tagging in in a few episodes anyway, why not have John Singleton, another face who belongs to this nineties, return to his city for ten episodes to show us all the insight we have or haven’t gained in the years between?
Juice ain’t got nothing to hide,
Sarah and Phil
Sarah Mesle (PhD, Northwestern) is faculty at USC and Senior Humanities Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Prior to arriving at USC, she held postdoctoral fellowships in English at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles. She is a 19th-century Americanist by training and is interested, generally speaking, in the long history of the American popular novel and in the many ways pop culture can excite, estrange, and surprise.
With Sarah Blackwood, she is co-editor of Avidly.org. You can follow her on Twitter.
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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