A whole generation of Americans has been born and grown to adulthood since O.J. Simpson’s arrest on a murder rap in 1994. But even so, when President Trump’s former flunky Sam Nunberg had his famous cable-news meltdown last week, D.C.’s media wags could call Nunberg’s whack-a-mole act “the Bronco chase” and be sure most people would get the joke. That’s how much the whole Simpson saga is still at everyone’s fingertips: less well-known than the Nativity, maybe, but trouncing Jimmy Carter’s entire presidency and the War of 1812.
Of course, our familiarity has gotten a considerable boost in the past couple of years, owing to FX’s Emmy-winning 2016 miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson, and its Oscar-winning documentary counterpart, O.J.: Made in America. On top of that, the man himself was back in the news just last September, thanks to his parole after doing time for an unrelated robbery conviction in Nevada. In other words, O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?, which aired on Fox last night, wasn’t exactly clawing its way to America’s attention out of a cultural vacuum.
As you’ve no doubt read a gazillion times by now, Simpson’s interview with publisher Judith Regan was taped in 2006 to boost one of the worst ideas in publishing history: If I Did It, his ghostwritten “hypothetical” version of how he might (just might!) have gone about killing his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and restaurant waiter Ron Goldman outside her Brentwood condo on the night of June 12, 1994. Widespread disgust got the book’s publication canceled, and the tie-in Q&A supposedly spent the next dozen years moldering in a box on the Fox lot without anyone remembering it existed.
Uh-huh. If you ask us, anyone who believes these tapes were ever “lost”–and then conveniently rediscovered just in time for Fox to counterprogram O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession? against the debut of ABC’s revived American Idol, which spent 15 seasons as a Fox ratings champion before the network fumbled its golden goose away–is living in a happy Narnia where the Tooth Fairy rides a unicorn in the Kentucky Derby every year as Santa’s elves applaud. In a way, though, the whole ploy couldn’t help provoking its own kind of ‘90s nostalgia. This was the gutter-ball, unrepentantly trashy Fox that some of us grew up on, going back to its tabloid roots with a literal–take that, American Idol!–vengeance.
Of course, to dilute the porn effect (and pad out the special’s running time), we got wraparound segments featuring a solemn-looking Soledad O’Brien hosting a panel of drone bees including, among others, Regan herself, onetime Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden, and Nicole Brown Simpson’s friend Eve Shakti Chen. All of them dutifully played along with the charade that this was an opportunity to educate viewers about domestic violence and the problems of abused women, but damn few people who tuned in can have been kidding themselves they felt virtuous about it. We tuned in to watch a man trying to make money off his wife’s murder by “pretending” he did it, which the planet at large instantly interpreted as Simpson giving up on pretending he didn’t.
The “what if” fig leaf didn’t stay glued on very long, either. By the interview’s end, if Simpson wasn’t flat-out confessing to Regan, he was doing an awfully good imitation of it. (No wonder his defense team made sure to keep him away from the witness stand.) As usual, but more dramatically than the norm, the disconnect between our current idea of who he is and his ongoing confidence that he’s an untouchable legend was downright eerie. Even Regan, who’d probably dig up Hitler’s corpse for a friendly gabfest if there was enough money in it, looked a little rattled whenever Simpson laughed heartily at what fools these mortals be.
So are we going to lecture you for soiling your eyes and ears with this wallow in appalling prurience? Like hell we are, because we aren’t that stupid. American idols can’t compete with American folklore in its most trashily elemental form. Back when the “Trial of The Century” was keeping half of America glued to its TV screens from late 1994 through most of 1995, the culture’s goody-goody gatekeepers never stopped bemoaning our fascination with the whole tasteless, sensationalist circus. But that was always nonsense. Tabloid sleaze and bizarre sideshows were kissing cousins from the start with our sense that something of undeniable national consequence was going on.
Consciously or not, millions of viewers recognized that the Simpson case was an arena for political and sociological conflicts that resonated with us all. Race, class, legal showmanship and celebrity clout trumping equality under the law were all piled on top of a literally fatal version of what we weren’t yet calling toxic masculinity. The fault lines exposed by Simpson’s acquittal—with black Americans mostly celebrating the verdict, while many white observers reeled in shock—were a reality we had to live with, too. Like it or not, O.J. Simpson ended up articulating more about America than Bill Clinton ever did, because even the White House was no match for a courtroom in downtown L.A.
All that is still true now. Even if O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession? didn’t change our understanding of the facts of the case one bit, it was a reminder that the absurd always did court the vulgar in our obsession with the case. Yet our obsession wasn’t meretricious, even so, and that mash-up was the element that FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson downplayed more than it should have. In a roundabout way, you could say that Fox’s ratings-hungry cynicism in putting the most indefensible by-product of the carnival on display all these years later for our delectation did a better job of bringing back how insane it was.