The People Vs OJ Simpson (FX; showing here on BBC2) comes under the anthology title American Crime Story, itself spun off from the anthology title American Horror Story, the ingeniously regenerative device of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk that has given us the thoroughly unpleasant Murder House, Asylum, Coven, Freak Show and Hotel (I watched all of the first three with glee, but bailed on Freak Show and have boycotted Hotel because Lady Gaga seems to be in it). Despite the wily, self-aggrandising rebrand, The People Vs OJ Simpson is a horror story as well as a crime story. Murphy and Falchuk treat those two impostors just the same. In their eyes, all stories are camp. This would remain the case if they launched American Sports Story, or American Accounting Story. And I hope they do.
I know the OJ saga is in the public domain (and I remember the highlights of the legal circus from the time), but I have taken an unusual path with The People Vs OJ: I bought the book. I became instantly smitten with the show: its heightened tone, its showboat casting, its fixed setting at eleven. And after two episodes (there are ten), I sent off for Jeffery Toobin’s The Run Of His Life, published in 1997, which seems to reign as the definitive article. Five episodes in now, and I’ve finished reading it, unable to put it down. Way more than a court transcript, it does what the New Yorker does, which is to say: humanise reams of information. (Toobin began his story covering the trial for the New Yorker, and quickly became part of it, when police detective Mark Fuhrman sued defence lawyer Bob Shapiro, Toobin and the magazine over a leak.)
I usually make a point of not reading books that are going to be made into films. Indeed, I’ve been evangelical about it in the past. But I read Room by Emma Donaghue specifically because I knew it was coming out as a film, and I was glad I did. Even though it meant I knew where the story was going when I subsequently saw it, I felt that the experience of reading it (told from the point of view of the captive five year old son) was improved by having no pre-warning. I started reading High-Rise by JG Ballard in advance of the film, too, and in doing so, I better understand why the film didn’t quite work: it’s JG Ballard’s fault! Reading The Run Of His Life has been entirely different. We all know the outcome. We watched it on the news in 1995. Toobin’s book is predicated on the understanding that we know the ending, and that the ending is a grotesque travesty of justice; that OJ Simpson did murder Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in cold blood.
The book was safe to read. But having now read it, I am getting so much more out of the TV show. I know that it’s based on fact. It’s a matter of record. Sure, it’s exaggerated for effect – in real life, Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal team did not file into Judge Ito’s courtroom in slow motion on the day that they discovered that the prosecution had strategically added Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden to the team, nor did they do so to the lowdown mid-90s G-funk tune Black Superman – but it’s factually accurate, it’s on the books (it was on Court TV, if you cared to watch it, and lived in America). Any surgical enhancement by the writers Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, D. V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Joe Robert Cole is rooted in fact. Except maybe the retro-fitted bits featuring the Kardashians. But the case is open and shut. If I hadn’t read the book, I might not have believed what went on actually went on.
It’s a cliché, but you couldn’t make it up. When prosecutor William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) has a panic attack and faints in court, as a viewer, you’re assuming this must be made up. It’s dramatised for effect, but it pretty much happened. There it is on page 259 of Toobin’s account: “Hodgman noticed a strange feeling in his chest … a tightening … the sensation didn’t go away … paramedics were called.” That the actual trial descended into grave farce is a gift. I can’t wait for the black glove. I can’t wait for prosecutor Marcia Clark’s mid-trial haircut, according to Toobin “a much-admired transformation that landed her hairdresser on Oprah.” (Sarah Paulson is my favourite among a stellar cast – I’ve seen pictures of Clark and the resemblance is sound, although it’s reading about her on the page that paints the clearest picture and Paulson has worked it all into her performance.)
Dramatising “actual events” is a common thread on modern TV, true crime is so fashionable people will even listen to it on a podcast, never mind on glossy cable TV, and actors seem to spend most of their careers now doing “karaoke” turns as real people. But we all accept artistic licence, otherwise you’re literally just watching great actors read out transcripts. The skill, I think, with The People Vs OJ, is in organising the material in such a way that it slots neatly into ten episodes. See how they used the famous white Bronco chase to tease us from episode one into episode two (“The Bronco’s gone!” gulps David Schwimmer’s pathetic Robert Kardashian, a line that only works if we know exactly where the Bronco has gone and is going). Episode five ends with an imagined vignette of Furhman listening to what sounds like Wagner while admiring an Iron Cross among his collection of Nazi memorabilia. This was a cheaper trick – like a cliffhanger from Dallas – but it works as television. And this is fabulous television.
Just let me know when American Gardening Story starts and I’ll be there.