Monday, April 4, 2016

The People vs. Televised History Lessons




"At their best, such narratives can uncover possibilities and dilemmas in the recent past that we have not resolved, however much we have become sensitized to them. At their worst, such narratives are complacent, mythologizing the past with seductively nostalgic allure while smugly lecturing us about what we already all agree were its shortcomings.

The intelligence of The People v. O. J. Simpson is rooted in the deftness with which it avoids the latter trap. First, it is not quite “prestige TV.” The critics that initially ridiculed it have clearly become used to the super-tasteful sheen and emotional earnestness of that genre. The People v. O. J. is candy-colored pulp, not above playing for jokes, and has no glamour. The taupes and pastel pinks of its sets; the lime green and pale yellow shirts, the wide, baroquely patterned neckties; the beige-toned sofas, bloated French Country furniture, and boxy, disposable-looking cars—all of that mid-1990s ephemera seems cheap even when it’s expensive, and more than a little embarrassing, a bottle of Zima instead of Don Draper’s Old Fashioned. 
By refusing to take itself seriously, by not seducing us with solemnity, the show manages to be far more adept than its peers. It doesn’t traffic in grand secrets or tragic revelations, but in a world of crazy happenstance, tangled contingencies, ridiculous impostures. That, as it happens, is its second virtue: the focus on the small scale, the fidelity to slippery feeling over narrative momentum. It isn’t too much to say, in fact, that Simpson’s guilt or innocence is the show’s MacGuffin, the ultimately irrelevant plot motivation that occasions the narrative’s truly important business. What emerges into a sharp foreground isn’t any tantalizing mystery, but what we now call microaggressions: the places where structural inequities lurk under behavioral norms. The camera lingers on cruelly appraising glances and wounding offhand remarks, on a cashier’s comments as Clark buys tampons, on a traffic cop’s impassive face as he handcuffs Cochran for a minor violation. No small part of the show’s visual wit is its emphasis on fences, doors, barriers between bodies. Each of the major characters—Clark, Cochran, Chris Darden—has an essentially private understanding of what it means to live in their skin, one that they can share with others only indirectly." 
-Nicholas Dames, "The People vs. O.J. Simpson" As Historical Fiction, Public Books

This show is phenomenal, soaring way beyond what seemed to be its potential.  It casts alight the precise moment when reality, identity, news, et al. became entirely performative.  I've talked to some who've thought the constant bustling of the Kardashian kids on screen serves as little more than winking fluff, but their appearance is little more than...circumstantial. It was in this paradigm that the Kardashians were coronated, wherein they learned what was rewarded from a life lived in the spotlight.  Much like Mad Men, The People vs. O.J. Simpson is less a historical curiosity or a gloating slice of judgment hindsight (a la the Newsroom).  It's not for nothing that the series launches on footage of the L.A. riots.  The series wants us to think about how these issues are still living with us, how history doesn't erase itself, but merely complicates the present with its continued presence.

As something the media refused to ignore, it set the precedent for 24 hour news channels (MSNBC and FoxNews would both launch the year after the verdict) and their capacity to concentrate on the banal, the speculative, and to exploit the firey passions and prejudices of its audiences.  The media's concentration on passing ephemera made it miss the forest for the trees in the case, which came pre-cocked with the gunpowder residue of classism (a rich celebrity able to skirt the law), sexism (who also beat his wife for years with no repercussions), racism (a police force who had never had a referendum for their brutal and deadly interactions with the black body politic), and questions about the role of the press (off-screen, but constantly directing the momentum of the action).

As Mark Fuhrman is escorted into court, protestors outside chant "No Justice, No Peace" and the show's producers seem to take this quite literally.  The conceit seems to be that O.J. Simpson was quite possibly the most guilty man to ever be guilty, but he is ironically able to escape his punishment because a racist system will always cast a shadow of doubt onto that guilt.  There can be no justice for Nicole and Ron without peace for Rodney. The past isn't letting us off the hook that easy. It stays with us and complicates us until we're ready to face it for what it actually is, rather than the surface of how it appeared.


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