There’s something mythologically American about the O.J Simpson story. It celebrates wealth, Hollywood, sports legend and is an innately tragic conclusion to cultural icon.
O.J was a hero in that most American of sports, the aptly eponymous American football, and achieved a celebrity star power forged by his physical prowess. It was also the latter which was to be his destruction as he was accused of the murder of his ex-wife and her lover.
For the Brit remembering this story and watching it on-screen, it is shocking just how apart of the American narrative it is. It’s one of those epochal moments, like Kennedy being assassinated or Marilyn Monroe dying that imprints on the national memory. You forget that life exists between these moments, or that a country is compromised of anything else. The O.J Simpson story has all the belittled hype and tragedy of a 90s sitcom and, as in fact and in fiction, the recent television drama of the whole affair is as equally seismic and riveting.
What is curious about The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, now on its third episode, is just how little it attempts to conceal its reason for being. Of course, the story is captivating, who doesn’t want to watch an ambiguous, shocking act of criminality and the subsequent legal wrangling. But there’s more to it, an embedded relevancy that guises itself as a true crime tale when all the programme serves as is a nefarious origin story for the Kardashian clan.
There was a suspicion that this is what it was going to be all along. David Schwimmer being cast as the late Robert Kardashian, friend and attorney to O.J, prompted speculation that his casting meant an undue focus on the Kardashian element to the story. The first two episodes, however, were addictive viewing and gloriously well performed with markedly little fact made of Robert being the late patriarch to Kim, Khloe and Kourtney.
By the third, however, and with all the moral puerility of Ross Geller, the character transformed into an ironic, proselytising caricature of how the public view the Kardashians today. Strong moral centres, he warns, can’t be replaced with material elements or fame. It was a difficult scene to watch not least because it was trying to guise itself as surreptitiously clever. The scene and the series as a whole is either a stunning parody of the Kardashian triptych today or a tragic indictment that a real-life murder drama is being billed as the original Kardashian television show.
Perhaps it’s because the UK’s resilient class system still doesn’t really judge status by fame that the O.J and Kardashian story doesn’t really translate across the pond. For all of the meritocratic revolution which occurred under Margaret Thatcher, we’ve never really succumbed to the idea that money can buy respect or that it is the only currency to purchase power. O.J was a sports player and while the UK may venerate everyone from sports players to idiotic celebrities made famous from reality programmes, the country has never fallen foul to the idea that celebrity is same as power and influence. Maybe the real tragedy of the story will be lost on us.
For all that, it’s impossible not to be drawn into this story, not least because it is brilliantly scripted and acted. Even if you’re not of the age to remember the constant news headlines and characters of the real trial, it’s a challenge not to be fixated on the performances of John Travolta, David Schwimmer and, of course, Cuba Gooding Jnr.
Perhaps that’s the irony of fact and fiction and the golden age of American television. They’ve mined the possibilities of fiction into such a multifaceted pantheon of options that it’s now looking for new story avenues. What else provides the best fiction than the truth?