"O.J. Simpson: Made in America" — 4 Winners, 4 Losers

ESPN's production of the entire Simpson saga was masterful storytelling.
ESPN's production of the entire Simpson saga was masterful storytelling.

I remember June 17, 1994 like it was yesterday.

Anybody who was at an age of self-awareness at that time does. We were in the middle of the NBA Finals, the Stanley Cup Finals, a couple months away from a baseball work stoppage and O.J. Simpson made a run that day for freedom that divided an entire nation. And somehow, 22 years later, the event is still evolving and is as topical now as it was then. 

Simpson's run for freedom, which started with that Bronco chase, passed through California criminal and civil courts, South Beach, Las Vegas, and eventually DID wind up with Simpson in prison, was ultimately unsuccessful. However, the story of the slayings of Simpson's ex-wife and a male friend, which may never be fully written until O.J. is in the ground, has become about so much more than two people being savagely butchered by, many believe, the quintessential sociopath.

The story of Simpson is about the lives of those still living in his story's wake, the careers tattered by Simpson's lies and his resources, and the ultimate life lesson that pride comes before the fall. All of these things, and about a thousand others, were captured in genius fashion by ESPN's five part documentary O.J. Simpson: Made In America. 


If you haven't seen it yet, you've probably heard friends and coworkers call it "the greatest thing ESPN has ever produced," and that's hard to argue. I'd probably need as many hours to completely summarize my feelings on the documentary as it took to watch it (over seven hours running time without commercials). Suffice it to say there were winners and losers, hundreds more of the latter.

Put it this way — I struggled to think of four winners, while I could have easily listed four DOZEN losers. There were virtually no winners in this thing, as even the people who came off well (Marcia Clark, Mike Gilbert, Fred Goldman) paid far too personal a toll to call them "winners" in any respect.

In short, Made In America was great art, but a mesmerizing, depressing walk down memory lane. 

Let's examine....

WINNERS

4. Marcia Clark
Ok, I lied. I'm going to include Clark among the "winners" in this post, by and large, because I always felt like she got a bad rap back in 1994, from a personality and competency standpoint. In an odd way, she gets somewhat vindicated by not only Made In America, but also the FX series People vs O.J. Simpson. The FX series showed her personal life behind the scenes, which was being sabotaged by a wretch of an ex-husband, and this documentary reinforced how 1) this trial was a trial on her likability vis a vis the nearly all-black jury and 2) she didn't want Simpson to try on those gloves, but her colleague Chris Darden went into business for himself and asked Simpson to do so. That mistake was a critical blow to the prosecution. Also, 22 years later, she seems the most at peace and well-adjusted of all those swept up in the undertow of the trial. 

3. Katie Couric's hair stylist
There was a lot of old NBC footage from back in the mid-90's. (Keep in mind, the 24 hour news cycle was still in its infancy with virtually no internet and no social media, so the big networks were far more a part of our daily lives than they are today.) By my count, Couric appeared with about a half dozen different haircuts, and if Saturday Night Live is looking to do a sketch on this documentary and the trial, Couric's coif-indecisiveness would seem to be some low hanging fruit.

2. Kim Kardashian
Even in a saga that began when she was in junior high and had virtually nothing to do with her, Kim Kardashian shows up in the final episode. As O.J. is sitting in a Vegas hotel plotting his aborted memorabilia heist, Kim shows up on Tyra Banks' TV show to announce her then-new reality show Keeping Up With The Kardashians. O.J., according to partner in crime Thomas Riccio, said that Kim's dad (and supposed friend of O.J.), the late Robert Kardashian, "wasn't shit" and then predicted Kim's show wouldn't last two weeks. Maybe O.J. meant "two decades."

1. Ezra Edelman
When I first heard that this documentary was going to be five two-hour parts, it felt like they were stretching it out for ratings purposes. As it turns out, Edelman (the director) needed every second of the time he used to tell this complex, multilayered story. The parts I found most mesmerizing were 1) the number of people they got to sit down for long-form interviews and 2) the amount of never-before-seen footage and audio that were woven into the story. You haven't lived until you've watched the video of O.J. standing in his living room the day of his acquittal, drink in hand, screaming at district attorney Gil Garcetti's face on TV about what a horrible person Garcetti is. 

LOSERS

4. Carrie Bess, Juror #9
All due respect to Bess, who seems like a very sweet old lady, she was a horrible juror. In the documentary, she freely admits that she didn't like Marcia Clark (with a mildly amusing "thumbs down" gesture, if it weren't about a prosecutor in a murder trial for which she's a juror), and she felt the need for retribution for the Rodney King verdict. Bess didn't run at all from the fact that her determination was skewed heavily by both of those things. At the very least, I guess I can admire her honesty and willingness to express it on camera. The fact of the matter it's likely that Bess is as much an amalgam for others on the jury as she is her own spokesperson. 

3. The memorabilia industry
Let me first say that I love memorabilia, and that there are some really good, upstanding people and companies in that business. However, there are some bad seeds whose paint brush tends to cover all the good people who deal in this sector. The bad seeds were on full display in Made In America, from the autograph dealers who kept O.J. financially solvent (and indirectly allowed him to buy his way out of a guilty verdict) by paying him $50,000 per day in prison to sign items to the complete sliminess of Riccio in the documentary's final chapter.  

2. The L.A.P.D.
After sitting through all those hours of frantic 9-1-1 calls, photos of bruises and scrapes, and the crime scene photos followed by the absolute botching of the crime scene forensics by LAPD that facilitated the "not guilty" verdict, it's hard to determine whether Nicole Brown was failed more in life or death by the Los Angeles Police Department. Of all the people associated with this trial who should have trouble living with themselves for the rest of their lives, I put detectives Mark Fuhrman and Tom Lange, and forensics expert Dennis Fung at the top of the list. The scene in the second episode (at least, I think it was the second episode) where Lange is seemingly bragging about how the cops handled Simpson's initial questioning, with Clark and others saying what a clown Lange was spliced throughout, was riveting television. And totally appropriate. The police in this case operated at a level barely above mall cops. Terrible. 

1. Orenthal James Simpson
The final line of the entire documentary came from O.J., on the day that he was arrested on suspicion of committing the two murders, saying, "Please, remember me as The Juice...remember me as a good guy.”

Um, sorry, Juice. Not gonna happen. 

Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast and like him on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/SeanTPendergast.  



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