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TV Unleashes Its Original Anti-Hero: O.J. Simpson

Friday, February 05, 2016


In this era of television where anti-heroes are welcomed into our living rooms every week, the FX network has brought back to our screens the ultimate, original real life anti-hero: O.J. Simpson. In case you haven’t heard, The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, premiered this week, covering the events that turned American pop culture on its head more than 20 years ago.

O.J. was a football icon. He was the first ever NFL player to rush for more than 2,000 yards in a season and stands as the only player to do it in a 14-game season. He was inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame and then went on to a profitable broadcasting and acting career. On June 12, 1994, O.J.’s ex-wife, and a friend of hers, were found dead at her home in Los Angeles, California. O.J. became the main murder suspect in what would become the greatest trial and spectacle of the century, casting a divide across the country like never before in modern times.    
With the landscape of television as it is today, the timing is perfect for this 10-episode miniseries to air, for it was O.J. Simpson who brought upon the era of the anti-hero that continues to dominate our television screens today.
Take a look at the top 50 television shows during the O.J. trial (1994-1995). You will not find a single show that showcases a hero with questionable morals and ethics like you find on television today. 

The closest you can come to is maybe NYPD Blue, ER or the comic happenings of Seinfeld and Melrose Place; at worst those heroes grappled with infidelity, anger management, selfishness and questionable tactics at the operating table. But, despite their failings, we always knew they were the good guys at the end of the day. We saw them struggle with their conflicts, we saw them wanting to become better people because of it (except maybe for the characters of Seinfeld). Various times, their conflicts mirrored our own and we rooted for them to be better, either by the end of the episode or by the end of the season.
The current generation of popular television features shows like Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Dexter, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead; all shows where the main character’s morals are all over the map, if they have any at all. Dexter, Breaking Bad and Hannibal featured killers as the main protagonist, but they were also characters we came back to week after week, because we had either grown a fondness for them or we couldn’t wait to see what they would do next. We never had any doubt Dexter and Walter White (Breaking Bad) were the bad guys, even if they could justify every one of their killings for a greater good. While Hannibal was more a clear cut villain, it would later be his friend (love interest?) Will Graham that turned into the anti-hero. 

Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead are set in fictional worlds where our heroes have to make the most questionable and brutal judgment calls, many times resulting in the death of other individuals. Melrose Place may have been a fictional setting, but you never saw a wedding interrupted with such horrific bloodshed like the Red Wedding.
Which brings us to The People v O.J. Simpson. Although the first episode never shows O.J. actually killing his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, or her friend Ron Goldman, the gruesome and bloody evidence begins to pile up against him as the hour unfolds. O.J. (depicted by a welcome return for Cuba Gooding Jr.) screams and rants for most of the episode, frequently referring to himself in the third person (“they got the Juice in handcuffs!”), making it hard for us to like him, thus hard for us to believe he didn’t do it. It is only in the final 20 minutes do we begin to feel any humanity for his character when he contemplates suicide and begins to feel the full wrath of what is unfolding around him.
Time and again we are reminded of the man O.J. was to the many who knew him and to the many more who did not. His NFL stats and achievements are noted by many of the male characters while the lead female character (Marcia Clark; played with only one head by the versatile Sarah Paulson) pleads ignorant to those facts, but she does, however, remember his Hertz commercials and movie roles. O.J. was viewed as the athlete-celebrity you could have a beer with and talk to like anyone else on the street, whether you were black or white. It will be interesting to see how O.J. is depicted moving forward, the first episode ending at the very beginning of the famous white Bronco chase through the freeways of Los Angeles. The views of many as to whether O.J. is an anti-hero, a tragic hero, or just plain villain, will be seen through the varying lenses of those who believe he committed the crimes and those who do not, a position that has been vastly divided upon racial lines since 1994. 

Of course, the biggest difference between the anti-heroes of a show like Breaking Bad to the anti-hero of American Crime Story is that the former show is fictitious. O.J. is a real, flesh and blood person. To many he was a hero, one of the first athletes to transcend sports into the realm of pop culture icon. Now, he is the anti-hero we are unfamiliar with as far as our viewing entertainment goes. His crimes, or alleged crimes if you wish, are all too real. Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman existed in our world. They had mothers, fathers, siblings, children and family. It will be much harder to watch this as you would Breaking Bad for pure entertainment value and much harder to enjoy this anti-hero as you would enjoy watching the exploits of Walter White. At the end of the night, we can usually hit the pillow knowing that none of the crimes and murders we just witnessed actually happened, that these crimes were not committed by real human beings. With American Crime Story, none of those safeguards exist. It did happen. A real human-being nearly decapitated another.

The events of the O.J. trial twisted what we thought of as heroes. A dark side began to emerge into those who we thought could never have one. No longer could our heroes and villains be on such drastic, opposite ends of the spectrum. Since 1994, TV has run amok with anti-hero depictions. The Shield focused on a squad full of corrupt cops. House featured a brilliant yet drug addicted doctor. The Sopranos followed a family man who also happened to be in the mob. Even for women, it is better to be damaged than all light and goodness, as depicted in Damages, Jessica Jones, Homeland, and The Americans (say it ain’t so, Felicity!)

Maybe most concerning, is that O.J. may not be the only anti-hero depicted in American Crime Story. The first episode begins with clips of the L.A. riots 2 years prior to O.J.’s arrest, including footage of a black man (Rodney King) being beaten by white police officers that fueled the riots. These scenes laid down the foundation for why the trial divided us along race lines. It was a time when the black community felt they were being unfairly treated and victimized by the law. Sound familiar? We are still living in a society where minorities feel like second-class citizens. Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown have become this generations’ Rodney King. Nearly 25 years later, it feels like we have not improved much as a society. After all the unrest of 1992, we, unlike the heroes of those bygone 90s shows, are no better at the end of the episode. And that, as a society, should be the anti-hero we fear most.

The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs on Tuesday nights, 10pm on the FX network.

GoLocalPDX partner Oregon Sports News: Since 2011, Oregon Sports News has provided entertaining, hard-hitting local sports news & commentary every weekday. To read more from this author, check out Oregon Sports News by clicking here.


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