American Crime Story: A Tale of Two Audiences
With each passing episode, I am astonished by how the writers of American Crime Story convert the dilemma of their split viewership to work to their complete advantage.
Backtracking a bit, the O.J. Simpson murder case took place between 1994 to 1995. Which places us more than twenty years removed from that point in time. Basically, not too far off that the events have faded from our collective memory but far off enough for it to seem ripe for a revisit. And while I refuse to dive into snore-inducing viewership-based analytics, all I wish to point out is that the viewership of American Crime Story can be strictly classified under two dating systems; B.J and A.J. Or “Before Juice” and “After Juice”.
I place myself firmly within the latter category, just a mumbling toddler when the actual trial was taking place live on air. Therefore, I, along with my fellow “A.J.” brethren are experiencing the proceedings of this trial for the very first time. And every new twist and discovery portrayed in this trial, coupled with the revelation that is Courtney B. Vance, makes for an incredibly fascinating tv experience.
And by now, I’ve come to understand that the term “circus act” or “clusterfuck” doesn’t come anywhere close to describing the heights of absurdity summited in the O.J. murder case. I find myself cross-referencing, fact-checking, and following up on every spectacular morsel of development that the show has offered up as if it just happened yesterday. Changing the decor in O.J.’s house for the jury’s tour? Real. Bill Hodgman collapsing in flop-sweat while present in the courtroom? Check. Mark Fuhrman proudly polishing his Nazi memorabilia? Well…maybe.
It’s the knowledge that these events actually took place combined with the “behind the scenes” access that American Crime Story offers that elevates the theatre of this murder trial to far greater heights than reality offered us. So us “A.J.’s” have got it made. We get to go into each episode with a blank slate and watch it as if it were unfolding in real time – all proportioned in hour long segments on a week by week basis. But “B.J.” folk, I’m also here for you too. I’m here to stand trial defending this show on your behalf. And while the saying goes, “The truth is stranger than fiction” – I firmly believe that there is something here for you as well despite having already experienced the trial of the 20th Century.
The “B.J.” audience has seen it all. They know what’s coming. How it happens. The words that were spoken. And for the crowd who knew what a “Brentwood Hello” was in the 90’s – this trial is old news, an unnecessary grab if you will. And this would be the case if American Crime Story were a simple re-telling but it seems apparent that the writers are unwilling to settle with reality for accuracy’s sake. No, they seem keen on pushing the line farther and transforming this legal proceeding into one of the most enthralling seasons of television you’ll watch in 2016.
There’s a zeitgeist-y sheen to the racial tensions that bubble underneath American Crime Story’s narrative. Opening the pilot with the Rodney King riots was not a mistake. It effectively bridged the twenty year gap that separates modern day from the trial, instantly drawing out branches towards the the racial issues that we still contend with today. That strategic ploy of modern relevance that American Crime Story seeks is worthy of our recognition. Despite all the FUBAR-ed depictions of racial turmoil that permeate the trial, the writers have grasped a nuanced approach towards this subject that is worthy of the “B.J.’s” recognition.
And there is so much more the writers wish to do with this inaugural season than just going through the motions of the trial. That would be too easy. Instead, they are utilizing the subject matter to portray topics of race, justice and the American public in an incredibly complex and nuanced manner. They’re showing us how race became the elephant in O.J.’s courtroom. A topic that literally became impossible ignore and yet incredibly subjective within a public forum. And when we see that see-sawing concept plug itself into the performance of law and order, it became the lit fuse to a powder-keg of tension.
So “B.J.” folk have that to contend with. They are able to compare the apples to oranges that is 1994 and 2016. “B.J.’s” can see how much progress, or a lack thereof, has been made in areas such as race, justice and law enforcement within the past two decades. And what the writers have to say on that. Ultimately, the “B.J.” audience is able to see a greater level of thematic dimensions and nuances present in American Crime Story that the “A.J.” crowd simply isn’t. At least on the first time around. And it isn’t for a lack of trying but the simple qualification that they tuned in and saw that 16 month slog firsthand.
But most importantly, American Crime Story is a well made, thematically rich and superbly acted television show. Courtney B. Vance has been an absolute tour de force in his role as Johnny Cochran. Sarah Paulson is revelatory in her bottled lightning role as human smokestack Marcia Clark. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s depiction of O.J. is haunted, egomaniacal and pathetic all at once. His portrayal of O.J. shows us a man perturbed by how his past glories are now inevitably eluding his grasp. And while we all know what the final verdict, the greatest trick American Crime Story succeeds in pulling off is making that knowledge the least of our concerns.
Season One of American Crime Story premieres on Tuesdays at 10 PM on FX