Monday 27 March 2017

Television: Juice, justice and the American way

American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson, BBC2
* Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, TG4
* The Aliens, E4

Real life: Sterling K Brown and Cuba Gooding Jr in episode 5 of 'The People v OJ Simpson' on BBC 2.
Real life: Sterling K Brown and Cuba Gooding Jr in episode 5 of 'The People v OJ Simpson' on BBC 2.
Ed Power

Ed Power

Subtlety has never been Ryan Murphy's forte. Glee, finally put out of its misery last year, had come to feel like a life sentence in the karaoke bar at the end of the world; the star producer's other big hit, American Horror Story, suggests a cross between a bad slasher movie and a Lady Gaga video (probably why the self-same pop star featured in the most recent season).

Thus your heart sank a little when it was announced that Murphy's next project would be a "true crime" retelling of the OJ Simpson trial. What camp havoc would he wreak upon the OJ case, a tale teetering on bad taste to begin with?

Five episodes in, apologies are in order. American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson (BBC2, Monday) may be weighed down with a grandiose title, yet this chronicling of OJ's arrest for the 1994 murder of ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ronald Goldman and his subsequent acquittal, is thrillingly light on its toes.

Smartly, Murphy has stepped out of the way of his own show and ceded creative control to Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, long-time collaborators whose celebrity biopics hold an often unflattering mirror up to society.

As with their movies Ed Wood and The People vs Larry Flynt, The People v OJ boils a complicated story down to its shocking essence. In one corner are arrayed a huffing, ego-maniacal celebrity (Cuba Gooding Jr) and a rag-tag of vainglorious lawyers (led by John Travolta's plastic-moulded Robert Shapiro). In the other, in-over-their heads prosecutors (with Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark) lurch from snafu to snafu.

But to present the bigger picture the series pans back to the ruinous state of race relations in mid-90s Los Angeles. This is most agonisingly conveyed in a scene in which OJ's superstar attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney Vance) is pulled over by a cop for having the temerity to be a black man driving through a white neighbourhood in a fancy car.

With racial tensions broiling endlessly in the United States, the contemporary resonances of the OJ case require no expanding upon. However, The People v OJ Simpson is more than mere morality fable about America's original sin. It also implicitly argues that the trial spawned that tackiest of milieus, reality television.

When TV networks across America cut from the basketball play-offs to live footage of OJ and flunky Al Cowlings fleeing custody in a white Ford Bronco, a new form of entertainment was born. Gawping at A-listers and their misdeeds and misfortunes was about to become a global pastime.

American Crime Story gets its point across by emphasising the role played by "Juice", bestie Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer, letting his big cow-eyes do most of the acting). Kardashian was a mumbling nobody before the OJ trial, a slouching divorcee with funny hair and a weird name.

The delicious paradox of course was that, though few at the time had any idea who he was, his daughters Kim and Khloe would go on to redefine celebrity in the social media age. Every time we go on Twitter or check our Instagram, we are stepping into a world the OJ trial helped create.

The genius of the People v OJ Simpson therefore lies in its understanding that the case really wasn't about OJ at all. It was about fame, race and what happens when some of the big beasts of American law are required to rub along together.

It was this final conflict that informed the latest episode as the head of OJ's legal team, Shapiro (played as a floating, rubber-faced robot by Travolta), was outflanked by Cochran and Kardashian, while OJ, terminally unable to shoulder responsibilty, huffed and preened in the background. This was a dazzling soap opera that also addressed uncomfortable truths about fame, ego and the human condition.

Likewise, speaking to universalities beyond its immediate circumstances was TG4's recounting of the life and death of Francis Sheehy-Skeffington (TG4, Tuesday). Skeffington was an accidental participant in Easter 1916, executed by the British despite his peripheral involvement. But he was also a prominent pacifist and agitator for women's rights and, even removed from the hoopla around the Rising, his story was fascinating.

"Skeffy", as friends called him, was a revolutionary of a different stripe. Though he threw himself into the cause of a better Ireland, he was appalled by violence, a source of tension with his wife Hanna Sheehy (whose name he took).

The turmoil of early 20th-century Ireland was powerfully evoked but the documentary also addressed Skeffington's belief that, in the long run, civil disobedience would trump the gun. He dreamed of a fairer, more equal Ireland and, 100 years on, the programme invited us to consider what he would have thought of the country we have built upon the legacy of 1916.

In a riotously different vein, The Aliens (E4, Tuesday) was an extraterrestrial romp with a twist. Visitors from outer-space lived among us but were essentially indistinguishable from humans. The give-away was their hair, which had hallucinogenic properties when smoked.

This was a deliriously silly premise yet Dublin-born screenwriter Fintan Ryan (Misfits) pushed it as far as he could, sketching a portrait of a contemporary UK where outsiders were simultaneously an object of fear and fascination. With Brexit"looming, The Aliens succeeded both as action-comedy and chilling allegory.

Ian O'Doherty is on leave

Irish Independent

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