Television

The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story – A Review

Starring Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Cuba Gooding Jr., David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Kenneth Choi, Nathan Lane.

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Dubbed the ‘Trial of the Century’, the legal battle which sought to put O.J. Simpson behind bars for the murder of both his ex-wife and her friend was certainly not without intrigue. The details of the story, which unfolds over ten episodes, are frequently outlandish enough that they would not have worked as fiction; a hallmark of a great true-to-life tale.

The trial itself does not begin until the fourth episode, but this is not to say that there is any shortage of drama up to that. Episode 2 gives us an unmistakeable flavour of the absurdity that surrounds this story and its protagonist; those old enough to remember the events of the debacle that was the lead-up to the Simpson trial will doubtless enjoy the retelling. Those not of such an age may find themselves dumbfoundedly hammering their Google machines at this point in an attempt to confirm whether this is, in fact, a true story.

Once the trial begins, Simpson assumes a less central role, with a switch of focus to the lawyers on each side. There are acquisitions by the defence team and reshuffles on both sides. Controversy around the reliability of witnesses and the veracity of physical evidence spills over into the media, and the prosecution’s seemingly unassailable case is met with unseen challenges.

Replete with unlikely plot twists, this story also benefits from a diverse group of characters. The creators have made the interesting choice to keep focus in this regard quite fluid; no individual player is allowed to hog the limelight for too long. If anyone, the star of the show would probably be Marcia Clark (played masterfully by Sarah Paulson), the tomboyish and highly capable lead prosecutor. Her righteous anger at Simpson’s alleged crimes simmers beautifully, and the toll taken on her personally by the limelight of the trial is portrayed in sublime fashion. The other standout performance is that of Courtney B. Vance playing Johnnie Cochran, Simpson’s loquacious legal counsel. His soulful rhetoric is delivered powerfully, and Vance exudes both arrogance and genius in magnetic fashion. Both actors claimed an Emmy for their trouble.

Sterling K. Brown, also in receipt of an Emmy, gives an eye-catchingly controlled performance as Christopher Darden, an attorney for the prosecution. As a black man, he is directly exposed to the racial tensions that arose from the case; unlike Vance, however, he is not given the freedom to air his frustrations in bombastic prose at every turn. His soft speaking voice seems almost out of place in the courtroom, but acts as an effective counterpoint to the other main players.

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The remainder of the acting performances hold their own as well, although this may only be true in John Travolta’s case due to an unintended comic relief factor. His lines are delivered in a clipped, overly deliberate manner, and his movements are somewhat robotic; it is his face, however, surgically reconstructed to the point that he is scarcely identifiable as human, that steals the show. Gooding’s performance has been the subject of critical ambivalence, but his technical skill in delivering the role cannot be denied. Simpson’s reactionary, tortured mental state is portrayed with range and flair.

Ultimately, what begins as a murder trial that looks as though it will culminate in an easy conviction becomes a fascinating legal drama, and a look into the implications of the deep racial divisions in American society. Simpson’s innocence or guilt becomes an irrelevant consideration for many in what, for them, boils down to a symbolic battle against the oppression of the African community by the legal system and its enforcers. This series ultimately asks where the greater good lay in the trial of O.J. Simpson, and is too skilfully even-handed to suggest an answer itself.

While this series does not have the scope to present detailed dissections of its characters, it has more than enough material to present ten sharp, engaging episodes. Suspense drips and careful consideration is frequently provoked. For anyone contemplating a Netflix binge without the risk of too long a commitment (I got through it in under 36 hours), this might be just the thing.

4/5

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Television

How Best to Boil a Frog

This piece contains spoilers

 

It struck me while watching the first episode of Designated Survivor, the first season of which is currently available to watch on Netflix, what a risk it had taken with the mere facts of its premise. It seems to want to be taken seriously; Kiefer Sutherland embodies a layered and ambivalent protagonist, and the script is careful to flesh out the political intricacies at play. It has not opted to become hyperpalatable schedule-filler, and critics have been kind to it; Rotten Tomatoes give it an 85% approval rating, and has been nominated by many commentators as one of the 2016-2017 TV season’s top picks. This leads to this article’s central question; how can we possibly take seriously a show whose first episode kills off almost every single American political figure of consequence?

Few others have had the audacity to present such a ridiculous concept and get away with it so early in proceedings; there have been many, however, who have started off with reasonable and even mundane plotlines in season one, before gradually introducing more and more improbable twists until we are left with an overarching story that bears no resemblance to even the corniest envisagement of real life. And one or two of them have done it to the sound of deafening critical applause.

Breaking Bad is probably the best example. On day one we are given a perfectly believable, if somewhat unusual concept. A dying everyman with little to lose turns to the murkier side of the law to help manage his family’s finances after he’s gone? Not something you’d see every day, but it’s certainly not outside the more remote realms of believability. Fast-forward to the end of Season 5, and Walt has managed to overcome inoperable lung cancer, become the most accomplished meth cook in American history, live alone in the wilderness for several months to defy a nationwide manhunt and, just in case anyone thought things were getting a little stuffy, top things off by murdering a roomful of Neo-Nazis with a remotely controlled sub-machine gun mounted in the boot of his car in the final episode. Put like that, the whole affair does seem a little OTT; nevertheless, Breaking Bad’s final season has a 100% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with an Average Rating of 9.76/10. Not only were critics tolerating the ridiculousness, they all seemed to love it.

 

If we exclude the sorry mess that was its recent fifth season (a valuable lesson in how not to overdo it), Prison Break pulled off the same trick, albeit to a lesser extent. Michael Scofield’s deliberate incarceration and ingenious breakout in the first season worked well, and charmed critics and audiences alike. As things got more and more outlandish, critical support fell away and viewer numbers began to decline, but not so much that the show wasn’t still a commercial success. The fourth season attracted a total of 6.1 million viewers; not bad considering that, by the time it finished, it had seen fit to bring three characters (Michael’s mother, father and wife, conveniently enough) back from the dead. Why anyone was surprised when Michael himself was reincarnated is a mystery, when you think about it.

19th century wisdom had it that a frog, when placed in boiling water, would immediately jump out and save itself, whereas a frog left in tepid water which was then slowly brought to a boil would be oblivious to the danger and eventually die. While experiments conducted in the meantime have disproven this theory, it has taken on a metaphorical significance, poking fun at humanity’s tendency to ignore negative change if it happens gradually enough. Al Gore used it to make us feel bad about our role in global warming, but I think it can be applied just as neatly to the wackiness of television series. We don’t seem to mind absurd plotlines too much, just as long as they have the good taste to wait a season or two, letting us get accustomed to our surroundings first.

Where, then, does Designated Survivor fit in? Have we become desensitized to plot contrivances and cheap thrills? Or have we just come to see television drama for the unrelenting circus that it is, and found ourselves content not to bother with the ordinary, sensible bits at the start? It is also probable that, given the tumultuous state of America’s public affairs at the moment, as well as the elevated terror threat, many viewers might not even consider the events of Designated Survivor‘s opening sequence to be especially unlikely. Whatever the reason, this show  is one bubbling pot that most of us seem happy to jump straight into.