Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense,” Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) explains to his fellow Dream Team lawyers in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. “Our job is to tell a story.” That’s the job of this 10-episode miniseries, created by writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and produced under the Ryan Murphy banner, too. But the story it’s telling isn’t about whether or not the beloved ex-running back and small-time movie star savagely murdered his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a 25-year-old actor/waiter named Ronald Goldman. Nor is it about whether the Los Angeles Police Department, its institutional racism laid bare by the beating of Rodney King, framed Simpson, or even whether the jury exonerated him because of the color of his skin.
At its heart, The People v. O.J. Simpson is a story about fame, and about how in a trial conducted for the benefit of a national audience, justice is not only impossible, but irrelevant. The very first scene — after a preamble reminding viewers of the Rodney King beating, the “not guilty” verdict and the riots that gripped Los Angeles for six days afterwards — charts the overlap of stardom and homicide, as the limo driver who picks up Simpson in front of the house that will shortly become a crime scene gushes, “I’ve never met a celebrity before!”
Alexander and Karaszeswski are best known for warped, tongue-in-cheek biopics like Ed Wood (1994) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996), but if there’s a protagonist here, it’s not the Juice but “the people.” The screenwriters frame the Simpson trial, from the Bronco chase to the final verdict, as an origin story for the modern era, a turning point in the packaging of criminal trials as public spectacle. An NBC producer sums up its appeal when he orders an underling to cut away from the NBA finals to a live shot of Simpson’s white Ford Bronco rolling down the 405: “O.J. is news, entertainment and sports.” As the trial heats up, Simpson confidante Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) takes his kids out to eat and finds his newfound celebrity allows them to jump the queue: Could that be a spark of inspiration we see in young Kim’s eye?
Coincidentally, The People v. O.J. Simpson arrives just as another 10-hour series about a questionable murder verdict has captured the public conversation: Making a Murderer. Steven Avery and his nephew Brendan Dassey, who were tried for the 2005 murder of Teresa Halbach, were hardly celebrities, although Avery was well known around Manitowoc Country, Wisconsin as the man who’d spent 18 years in prison before being exonerated by DNA evidence. And though the national media paid some attention to the case, it never became a sensation the way that Casey Anthony or Jodi Arias’ trials did. Where Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark finds herself the subject of withering public scrutiny, changing her hairstyle mid-trial in a failed bid to placate the tabloids, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting trotted along in their dad jeans, with no worry that an ex- might leak naked pictures of them to the National Enquirer.
But in both cases, the winning side is the one that more successfully tries the case in the court of public opinion, playing media chess while their opponents play checkers. Cochran decides early on, with no apparent evidence, that the cornerstone of his defense will be that the racist LAPD seized the opportunity to bring down an African-American icon, and Making a Murderer prosecutor Ken Kratz poisons the jury pool with a press conference in which he salaciously recounts his theory of the crime as if it were fact, lingering on lurid details that it turns out are literally right out of a pulp novel (James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls, to be precise).
Both series, too, give viewers the opportunity to savor the details of the case, albeit in very different ways. Making a Murderer devotes an hour to the politics of false confessions, as Dassey, a shy high school student with an IQ well below average, is badgered into accepting the police’s version of his guilt; Simpson, too, bafflingly goes into an interrogation without legal counsel, but the scene is over in a minute or two, as the legal niceties are not where People‘s interests lie. Both package lengthy trials into series long enough to give the feeling of comprehensiveness while still leaving plenty out, but where Murderer has been accused of slanted advocacy, People is cautiously agnostic, its view of Simpson’s guilt or innocence seeming to shift depending who a particular scene focuses on. (Only six of the latter’s episodes were available in advance, but there’s no sense thus far that it’s leaning one way or the other.)
The trials have opposite results, but in both we emerge skeptical that justice has been done: The more detail in which we see the machinations behind the scenes, the less the accused’s actual guilt or innocence seems to matter. Even if you agree with the end result, it’s hard to conclude the system worked — more like the party with the deeper pockets won. The Netflix docu-series is scrappy and bare-bones, the FX miniseries slick and star-studded. But they’re equally despairing about how the justice system works, and who it works for.