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The case feels timely, even today
If you turned on a TV sometime in the past few months, you might not realize that it's 2016. In addition to revamped versions of The X-Files, Full House and Boy Meets World (to name a few), two of the best programming events of the year so far have shared a common subject: O.J. Simpson.
First was FX's excellent, addictive 10-episode miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which premiered in February. This past weekend, Part 1 of O.J. Simpson: Made in America, a nearly eight-hour documentary that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, debuted on ABC. (Parts 2 through 5 are airing this week on ESPN.)
Even the Real Housewives franchise had the good sense to jump on the O.J. bandwagon, with Real Housewives of Beverly Hills using the feud between Faye Resnick and Kathryn Edwards (who were both tangential characters in the Simpson case) as a central plot point in its most recent season.
American Crime Story offered a dramatized version of the trial, focusing mainly on the legal teams on both sides of the issue, as well as related issues like sexism and race relations. O.J.: Made in America offers a fuller portrait of the man himself, touching on the function of race in his trial as well as his rise to power. But it's been more than 20 years since Simpson was acquitted of murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. So why are we so obsessed with the Simpson saga today?
Well, for starters, it touches on all the topics that dominate our popular culture and the conversations around it: sports, the '90s, reality TV (though there wasn't a name for it back then), privilege, racial tensions, celebrity scandal, and the Kardashian family... Not to mention we all like a good ol' fashioned murder mystery. And both American Crime Story and O.J.: Made in America use the double homicide as the backdrop to discuss much larger, far-reaching issues.
O.J.: Made in America finds new ways to make the Simpson saga compelling
"This O.J. story gives us a way to talk about these things," O.J.: Made in America producer Caroline Waterlow tells TVGuide.com. "He's kind of a vessel for all these issues, whether it's domestic violence or celebrity or money and sports and media and criminal justice."
Waterlow cites the Black Lives Matter movement as proof that the conversation from more than two decades ago is continuing today. "We seem to be nationally engaged a lot more on the issues of race and disparity in the criminal justice system, and police brutality, and so there is this weird sameness to a lot of the topics," she acknowledges.
Indeed, much of the news footage used in both programs seems as though it could have just as easily been ripped from today's headlines, especially about interactions between black citizens and the police. O.J. Simpson: Made in America in particular offers a history lesson on the one hand, but also a grim reminder that history often repeats itself, for better or worse.
"People say, 'Is there a star that you could equate O.J. to now?' And I don't think there is," Waterlow continues. "One thing that was fascinating from the beginning was not so much rehashing the trial, but understanding the verdict, and the racial divide that seemed to come with the reactions to it."
Of course, there's also the fact that Simpson has stayed in the news. After his acquittal, he was a fixture in tabloids and on reality TV. His second arrest, for armed robbery and kidnapping in 2007 -- for which he's currently serving a 33-year prison sentence and is eligible for parole next year -- dominates the final installment of O.J.: Made in America. And earlier this year, amid the American Crime Story hoopla, a knife was found on Simpson's former property that many believed could have definitively linked him to the murders. (It didn't.)
"To have an event that people remember so well and that is such a shared cultural event that points to those [divides] creates an opportunity to talk about them," The People v. O.J. Simpson producer Nina Jacobson tells TVGuide.com. "It felt like [now] was an important time to be able to do that."
American Crime Story: Meet the characters and their real-life counterparts
Waterlow also points out that modern viewing habits are more conducive to the type of long-form programming a full dissection of the Simpson case requires.
"If we had done this ... five years ago even, people maybe weren't as much in the binge-watch habit," she notes. "There's a change in ways in which people are consuming these things. So the idea of something long and in-depth is actually not as hard to get out there as it was, maybe. People are up for it."
Additionally, while viewers under 30 likely have scant (if any) memories of the trial and its aftermath, other people who monitored the case as it was unfolding now have the benefit of hindsight to view it with fresh eyes (not to mention, perhaps a broader cultural scope thanks to the Internet).
"Researching the case ... just gave me a much more complete perspective and a much more emotional aspect to both sides. I think we are all in need of that right now," Jacobson says. "This was obviously such a huge cultural event at the time, and yet ... I think that the white community has a much better idea [today] of the distrust that was expressed at the time by so many black people. And I think white people are more ready to understand right now than they were back then. ... It's kind of remarkable how much more you can understand something with some distance than I think any of us were able to fully understand it at the time."
Parts 3 through 5 of O.J.: Made in America air tonight, Friday and Saturday at 9/8c on ESPN.