What 'O.J.: Made In America' Says About America Right Now

Epic ESPN doc on the Juice taps into our national obsessions — and officially makes 2016 the Year of O.J.

O.J. Simpson tries on the gloves — and embarrasses the prosecution — in the ESPN documentary 'O.J.: Made in America.' Credit: Vince Bucci/AFP/Getty Images

Somehow 2016 has turned out to be the year of O.J. — the year America looks back at the murder trial of the century to figure out what the hell it was all about, and what it still has to say about us. O.J.: Made in America has become a major cultural event, using TV to go deep on a story that couldn't be told any other way. Most horrifying moment: It's New Year's Eve at O.J.'s mansion, and the cops are knocking at the door. It's the ninth time they've been called out there for domestic violence. They find his wife Nicole cowering in the bushes in a bra and sweatpants, covered in bruises, sobbing, "He's going to kill me!" O.J. evades arrest by breezing off in his Bentley. The judge decides to get tough by giving O.J. community service: playing golf for charity. The Juice charmed his way out of this one. He charmed his way out of everything. And America kept looking the other way — until it was too late.

It's the first miniseries from ESPN's groundbreaking "30 for 30" franchise, an extraordinary seven-and-a-half–hour documentary that has forced us all to rethink a case we thought we already knew inside out, dredging up all the national obsessions: race, fame, money, misogyny, sports, sex, drugs, violence. Already this year we've had the excellent Ryan Murphy FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, treating the 1994 murder and trial as the L.A. celebrity burlesque it always was. But as Made in America shows, this story still hits home because it still has so many disturbing secrets to tell about our nation. The O.J. trial is a nightmare America has kept having about itself for decades.

Over the past five years "30 for 30" has looked at offbeat sports stories like Fernando Valenzuela, the high-flying American Basketball Association and the history of the high five. Yet Made in America is a sprawlingly ambitious epic that couldn't have been possible in the TV culture of five, 10 or even two years ago. Director Ezra Edelman has dug deep, interviewing friends, family, lawyers and even jurors — most devastatingly, giving excerpts from Nicole's diaries. It focuses on the twisted racist history of the LAPD, and details usually left out of the story, like O.J.'s gay dad Jimmie Lee, who died of AIDS-related complications in 1986, or his bizarro history of cheating at golf.

That's why the O.J. trial has turned into a national obsession right now. It's not merely the most famous American crime story — it suggests America is a crime story.

Made in America shows why Orenthal James Simpson became a football legend at USC, but his gridiron days were just a fraction of his amazingly long run as a celebrity, always genial, always bemused. (Sometimes bearded. Who knew?) Like Reagan, who he resembles in so many ways, O.J. was the smiling ex-jock they could send out there to sell anything. As a movie star, he could rescue a kitten from a burning building in The Towering Inferno or play John Belushi's brother in the classic SNL sketch "Samurai Night Fever." Lots of other jocks from O.J.'s era tried to make this transition to mainstream fame — Joe Namath sure screwed it up, and Jimmy Connors never got close — but the Juice's charm made him the most uncontroversial and respectable of American heroes. He celebrity-seduced the cops who showed up on his doorstep, to the point where they walked away as starstruck fans.

It's fascinating how the current O.J. revival connects with the remake of Roots — another old story from the Seventies that TV has brought back this year — but also with the death of Muhammad Ali. (Of course, O.J. was in the original Roots; it's like he's there in the background of every American story.) In their overlapping heyday, the Greatest was everything the Juice wasn't: brash, mouthy, a noncomformist, happy to play the bad guy. But now as we look back on Ali and the ways he represented the best in us, it's even more chilling to revisit the unfinished business of the O.J. case. His charming smile still represents everything America would love to forget about itself, which is why we kept looking the other way. And also why America didn't notice when his life got even more sordid in the 2000s, after people stopped paying attention.

Made in America is also a story about TV right now — the way it uses the rapidly expanding frontiers of the small screen to make this story an epic that would be unthinkable for a feature film, and unwieldly in the era before binge-watching and streaming made it possible for so many people to participate in this documentary as an ongoing event. Back in the day, if you missed the first night of Roots, you just plain missed it; you couldn't go back and catch up. The ESPN miniseries has become such a massive event because it was able to cross over from the sports-doc audience to the rest of the country via word of mouth, letting the broader audience catch up after it had started airing.

And the gridiron aspect turns out to be unexpectedly revelatory — it's interesting to learn why exactly O.J was so good at what he did on the field, and why that inspired such goofy fanboy admiration, to the point where journalists, cops and tycoons were putty in his hands, even when they kidded themselves they were seeing the real O.J. Simpson.

This was a man who had every fantasy of American material success handed to him on a platter, yet could still charm a jury of his peers into embracing him as a beleaguered underdog. Unlike American Crime Story, Made in America has the Juice right there onscreen, and his opaque charisma is more disturbing than ever. That's why the O.J. trial has turned into a national obsession right now. It doesn't feel like the distant past, or even the past at all. It's not merely the most famous American crime story — it suggests America is a crime story.