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The People vs. O.J. Simpson Relives a Media Sensation

The circus is still the spectacle, but Nicole Brown Simpson remains missing from the proceedings.

Ray Mickshaw / FX

Before we do anything else, let’s talk about Nicole. You won’t learn much about her in FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment of American Crime Story, an offshoot of Ryan Murphy’s wildly popular anthology series American Horror Story. In the opening scenes of the ten-episode series, we see not Nicole herself, but her corpse. This is the same way most Americans encountered her for the first time, when, on June 13, 1994, the news broke that Nicole Brown Simpson, the ex-wife of retired football player O.J. Simpson, had been stabbed to death within feet of her own front door. Whoever murdered her had also attacked and killed Ronald Goldman, a 25-year-old waiter who worked at the restaurant where Nicole had shared dinner with her mother just hours before. Ron had come to Nicole’s house to drop off a pair of glasses that Nicole’s mother had forgotten at the restaurant. Both of them were found dead.

You know the rest of the story, or else you know its images: The white Bronco idling down an empty L.A. freeway, the huddle of defense attorneys, the press junkets and comic-relief characters, the seemingly endless taxpayer-funded soap opera that gradually played out on live TV, and, finally, the acquittal. That familiar story is what The People v. O.J. Simpson wants to tell you, which makes it a strange kind of TV show. It is interested not in creating a new narrative—you won’t learn much from it if you were paying attention to the case at the time—but in faithfully recreating an old one. 

If you remember the O.J. trial, there will be the thrill of identifying all the twists and turns and miniature scandals you thought you had forgotten. But the show seems primarily aimed at those who missed the case as it unfolded. In answering the question of how a trial became not a means of determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence but a national fixation, and how a crime acquainted the public with everyone but its victims, The People v. O.J. Simpson repeats the injustices of the media frenzy that inspired it. What we get now is a glossy, winking, forensic recreation of the whole gaudy spectacle; what was missing the first time around is also missing today. 

All of which is to say we are missing Nicole. There is something almost commendable about a TV show not giving in to the desire to use a dead woman simply as a tool for generating outrage and pity (Nancy Grace, Law & Order: SVU, and roughly 98 percent of daytime cable programming). But Nicole’s almost total absence from The People v. O.J. Simpson suggests something even more troubling; that a victim of violent crime can either exist as a narrative tool, or cease to be remembered at all.

Nicole Brown was 18 years old when she met O.J. Simpson. She was a waitress, he was a football star; they fell in love. O.J. adored Nicole until his adoration turned to jealous rage. He apologized, he bought her gifts; they stayed together, they got married. They had two beautiful children; they had a perfect life together—friends, cookouts, vacations, birthdays and weddings, love and money—until they didn’t. O.J. abused Nicole, Nicole called the police. Authorities came and, star-struck, did next to nothing; sometimes they did nothing at all. Even after O.J. was finally arrested, after brutally beating Nicole in 1989, no charges stuck to him. O.J. did community service and walked away from the courtroom and back into their marriage. In time, Nicole recorded 61 instances of abuse in her diary, a document which was not admitted into evidence during O.J.’s trial for her murder, just as what went on in the Simpson home was never referred to as domestic violence, the defense having successfully argued that the word was prejudicial. 

Nicole decided to leave and decided to stay, she decided to leave once more and again, decided to stay. “I just don’t think everybody goes through this,” Nicole said in a letter she wrote to O.J., but never sent. How could she be sure? It was the only marriage, the only relationship, the only life she had ever known.

Finally, they did divorce; separated not just in law but in fact. The last time O.J. Simpson would admit to seeing his ex-wife was at their daughter’s dance recital, just a few hours before she was murdered. Some chroniclers of the case would speculate that Nicole had sent O.J. over the edge that night, because she hadn’t saved him a seat. This was the kind of story that gained credence while the O.J. Simpson saga was still unfolding, one that allowed the public to blame a woman for her own murder.

The People v. O.J. Simpson does not glorify its title character. Neither the people nor O.J. come off well in the series, which replicates all the queasy pleasures of spectatorship that the story allowed the first time around. Now, as then, you can’t quite bring yourself to look away, even if you don’t know why you want to keep watching.

As O.J. Simpson, Cuba Gooding, Jr. does his best with a role that forces him to alternate between hysteria and childlike withdrawal. As in the scandal itself, O.J. becomes an action figure to be passed around between various powerful men, alternately hounded and cajoled, placated and condescended to. At the time of the trial, O.J. took on the role so often reserved for the victim of a crime: the passive body onto which different people could project different desires and beliefs, never confirming or contradicting anything, allowing various fictions to be spun around him until it was no longer possible to see the truth. To replicate this narrative, the actor who plays O.J. has almost no choice but to disappear from the action.

The closest thing we have to protagonists on this show are beleaguered prosecutors Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), but their dialogue rarely has a chance to rise above the expository. In the moments when the show remembers Nicole, it is usually because of Marcia Clark, but to Marcia, too, she can only ever be an idea. “The system failed her,” Marcia says in the first episode. A few moments later, having paid our respects, we are plunged back into the soapy action we came for. 

Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) stands out as one of the few characters in the story who doesn’t seem bent on profiting from the scandal in some way, and Schwimmer is quietly effective as a man whose life becomes a purgatory not so much because he truly believes in his friend’s innocence, but because he is forcing himself to believe in it. The show, of course, will not waste an opportunity to remind us exactly who Robert Kardashian’s children are, or to remind us of all the cultural freight that name has taken on in the last twenty years. The assumption, maybe, is that this connection will help younger viewers understand the show’s relevance. The comparison falls apart, however, for anyone who recognizes what a difference two decades make. The characters in The People v. O.J. Simpson are like figures in a Greek tragedy, cluelessly buffeted about by the fickle gods of tabloid headlines and primetime news. The next generation of Kardashians, on the other hand, set themselves apart not because they are beautiful or talented but because they know, perhaps better than anyone, how to control the way the public sees them. Seeing Kim Kardashian dart across the frame is like watching Mozart study a composition by Salieri. What the show doesn’t let us see is the first stages of this virtuosity.

1994 had its own stable of media darlings, and in The People v. O.J. Simpson, just as in real life, Johnnie Cochran steals the show. In Courtney B. Vance’s portrayal, we can see a legal strategist who is somehow both velvety and sincere. “Sometimes money is the only way to get justice,” he says in the first episode, in yet another impossibly heavy-handed summary. But Vance’s performance says more than the writers can. From the first scene, he depicts Johnnie Cochran as a man whose sophistry issues from a sincere desire for change, and who sees, in O.J. Simpson’s trial, an opportunity to bring to light the racial injustices that plague not just Los Angeles, but America.

In this respect, the mini-series is not a historical drama, but a contemporary story. The series opens with footage of the L.A. riots, situating the viewer in a world still reeling from the explosive outrage that can emerge when a black citizen is abused by the police, and the courts respond by making excuses and protecting their own. Of course, this is still the world we live in. 

Nothing about The People v. O.J. Simpson belongs to the past, but by making the story as viewer-friendly as it seemed 20 years ago—full of stock characters and catchphrases, entertaining everyone and implicating no one—its creators lose the chance to show us what we can learn from it. This is a story that could tell us how a trial can come to be about everything but the facts at hand, and how the struggle for the soul of a city can be at cross purposes with the fight to convict a murderer. It is a story that could tell us, on a smaller scale, why O.J. Simpson was the way he was, and what happens when a young man is venerated for his strength and power, and never has to learn how to do anything else. It is a story that could, at the very least, let the viewer witness not just the aftermath of a horrific murder, but the life that it cut short.

The People v. O.J. Simpson provides none of these things. Instead, it supplies us with the pleasure of taking the ride a second time. Twenty years ago, we were on the outside looking in. Today, we still are. Why would we want to be anywhere else? If we went any deeper, it would stop being fun.