The People vs. O.J. Simpson and the Mess of History

As the season approaches its conclusion, the FX drama added to its gloriously complicated portrayal of the case by focusing on the jury.


The O.J. Simpson murder trial is often spoken of as a saga, a turning point, a defining moment: something that summed up an essential truth. But what was that truth? Was it about the justice system? Race? Media, celebrity, and bias? Or, more simply, was it about the brutal deaths of two innocent people?

The answer, of course, includes all of those things. But it’s important to be careful when saying real history is about anything at all. The trial wasn’t a myth or fable with a moral to impart on mankind. It was real life: Things happened in relationship to one another, and many of those relationships remain irreducible to abstract concepts or, even, language. Whatever else the O.J. Simpson trial may have been, it was a collection of facts and events. It was data.

Eight episodes in—with two more to go—FX’s The People vs. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story has done as successful a job as anyone could hope, given its medium, in presenting this data as complicated and multivalent. This week, by shifting for one hour to a vantage point that viewers haven’t yet inhabited—that of the jury—Tuesday night’s excellent installment further underscored just how tangled real history can be. It was almost a bottle episode, but not quite, which suited the subject matter: No one element can be wholly separated from another.

The irony is that separation is exactly what Judge Lance Ito set out to achieve in sending 12 jury members and 12 alternates into extreme sequestration for eight and a half months. "We will try to make this something less than ... an experience of incarceration, but it won't be a picnic," Ito told those citizens at the outset, according to press accounts at the time. By now, the show has made obvious why such drastic measures were taken. The ubiquity of the case meant that a glance at a TV, an encounter with a neighbor, or a flip through a Reader’s Digest could contaminate members of the jury pool (who, perhaps more for logistical reasons, were also banned from their hotel’s actual swimming pool).

But even after they were removed from the world, could the jury really be thought of as pure? The bulk of the show’s intrigue, after all, is about the attempts by both the prosecution and the defense to manipulate the people in the jury box, in ways that go beyond the strict presentation of evidence. The selection process earlier in the season, where race and gender played a huge role, highlighted how the two sides sought jurors not for their open-mindedness but for their predispositions. And in this episode, we saw how sequestration itself might represent a kind of jury-tampering: It messed with their heads. Locked in a hotel with a handful of others, the jurors began to form bonds with guards, even holding a “strike” when Ito rotated likable ones out. Forbidden from arguing with one another about the case, they argued with each other about which VHS to put on—Martin or Seinfeld?

Even in that latter, banal debate, one of the Great Themes of the whole case seeped in: race. The series opened with images of the Rodney King beating and L.A. riots, a reminder of the context that may have swung the verdict in Simpson’s favor. The show has since preceded with remarkable nuance on the topic, nailing some of the essential ways that skin color makes a material difference in peoples’ lives. Prejudice is part of the picture, but not its entirety. Race, viewers are reminded, relates to social networks, which relates to culture, which relates to worldview. It can influence which sitcom you prefer, which discount retailer you prefer, and whether you expect justice from institutions or not. Of course, on the show as in life, no single attribute determines a person’s complete identity. Turns out, O.J. likes Seinfeld a lot.

Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski, Ryan Murphy, and the rest of the show's writing and directing team work the show’s many motifs—including the media’s amorality, the court’s corruptibility, and the lawyers’ petty humanity—like symphony composers: Themes surge, recede, and work in counterpoint. It certainly helps that the material’s richness continues to astound. This latest episode mined yet another fascinating subplot, the fact that the case introduced DNA evidence to a national audience. And the jury strike, a nearly unprecedented act that has been mostly forgotten today, was handled deftly. On another show, it might have been used to symbolize some big idea about the state of the case as it dragged on. But its portrayal here was grounded in the specific circumstances of the jury’s sequestration. Again: Data, not abstraction.

The involvement of the American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck guru Ryan Murphy initially seemed like an omen that American Crime Story would be all frothy, freaky sensationalization. Turns out that it’s partly that, but probably not more so than the spectacle of the trial actually was. Often, the show will underplay the most tawdry elements: Marcia Clark’s leaked nude photo is barely mentioned and never shown in mock-up; Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos” are onscreen in front of the real Ito for only a second. The fact that the ephemera is only glimpsed rather than gazed at helps remind the audience of just how enormous the cultural impact of this case was—and paradoxically, how relatively tasteful FX’s rendering of it has ended up being.

Perhaps the most queasy fact about the show is how, when watching it, it’s easy to forget about the grizzly loss of innocent life that precipitated it all. This too, mirrors reality to an extent. Queue up the aforementioned “dancing Itos” segment from 1995 and you’ll see it was preceded by a lighthearted parody of the trial set to the tune of Gilligan's Island, with no mention of Nicole Brown Simpson or Ronald Goldman. On The People vs. O.J. Simpson, their fates seem front-of-mind only to David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian, the dazed, impressionable conscience of the defense. This latest episode’s emotional climax came when he told his ex-wife Kris that he can barely look at O.J. anymore. She advised him to quit the case; he replied by listing all the consequences that doing so would entail personally and publicly, for him and for his family, because of the media and because of the courts. The clean question of right and wrong was complicated by small, inescapable truths for him, as it was for so many others in this case.