TV blog: The People v. OJ Simpson

Benjie Goodhart / 11 February 2016

A 10-part dramatisation of events from the 1990s. Plus, Best Walks with a View with Julia Bradbury and other TV highlights.

The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story, Monday 15th February, 9pm, BBC Two

In 1994, the world watched, transfixed, as a bizarre and extraordinary celebrity horror story unfolded in vivid Technicolor.

OJ Simpson, American footballer-turned-actor and the darling of a nation, was arrested for the murder of his wife and her friend, following a bizarre low-speed car chase that was covered by news networks across the globe.

The story, the extraordinary trial, and the media circus that accompanied it, proved to be an irresistibly lurid spectacle. Simpson’s acquittal was perhaps the most remarkable aspect of all, a decision that polarised a nation and brought to the fore once more the simmering racial divides that characterised 1990s USA.

Now, this ten-part drama from American broadcaster FX brings the whole story roaring back to life– and they’ve really gone for it! This show boasts a cast more studded with stars than the Milky Way, including John Travolta, David Schwimmer, Cuba Gooding Jnr, Courtney B Vance, Nathan Lane, Sarah Paulson, Selma Blair, and countless celebrity cameos.

The first episode sees the opposing sides lining up their legal teams as the media interest in the story reaches biblical proportions. Be warned, though – the amount of mendacity, sleaze and morally dubious practise on display will leave you wanting to have a shower after this. This isn’t a traditional courtroom drama with a noble defence attorney saving a misunderstood innocent from the gallows – this is a wade through a waist-deep trough of thick, sludgy cynicism.

That said, it’s all rather fun (which in itself brings elements of discomfort, when you remember that the whole circus happened because two people were murdered). Schwimmer plays a lawyer with what was, back then, considered a weird surname – Kardashian (yes, he is the father of the reality TV family). In a delicious opening scene he tells his children: “We’re Kardashians, and in this family being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous.”

It will be interesting to see how the drama develops. It’s certainly beautifully written and performed, but the greatest cast in the world can’t detract from the fact that this is essentially a legal drama where the audience already knows the outcome. Ten episodes seems a lot to ask when there’s no will he/won’t he cliffhanger as pay-off at the end. But on the basis of episode one, I’d be inclined to give it another go.

The Not So Secret Life of the Manic Depressive: 10 Years On, Monday 15th February, 9pm, BBC One

The other night I watched a programme that I’d recorded over the Christmas period, because over Christmas we’re too busy socialising and having fun to watch telly (it’s a nightmare). The programme I watched was Stephen Fry: A Life on TV which looked back at the life of… can you guess? Well done!

Anyway, the programme showed a clip of Stephen Fry interviewing a deeply bigoted, homophobic government minister in Uganda. It was an uncomfortable exchange to watch, so what it must have been like to take part in is something else entirely. It must, you think, take something of a toll.

It did. Fast forward to this film, wherein Stephen Fry openly discusses his own mental health, and we discover just how much of a toll. Fry went back to his hotel room, drank a bottle of vodka, and took every pill he could lay his hands on. It was his intention to die.

Of course, the ministerial interview was just a catalyst. The root cause was Fry’s bipolar condition. Ten years ago, Fry made a film in which he discussed his diagnosis as a manic depressive. It was a brave and typically forthright thing to do. Ten years later, this film catches up with him, and meets other sufferers of the condition.

So, what’s changed in that time? We still have no cure, as such, although there are small improvements in its pharmaceutical management. We call it being bipolar now, instead of manic depressive. But perhaps the real clue is in the programme’s title. The original film was The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. Now that life is “Not So Secret”. Now, more than ever, there is open discussion of mental health, a subject that used to be the ultimate taboo. With this frankness comes increased understanding, and with that comes societal awareness and acceptance. It is progress in a very real sense.

This film meets some extraordinary people who are battling with a potentially shattering condition every day of their lives. There’s the young man who became a YouTube laughing stock thanks to being filmed having a very public spell of mania. The girl who is paralysed because she jumped off a balcony thinking she could fly. The girl who has tried to kill herself four times, and whose condition is so dominant that she finds it worse than dealing with the fact that she has terminal cancer.

All of them are putting their heads above the parapet to speak about some deeply personal issues. The result is a film that is not necessarily easy, but offers a depiction of the raw courage and indefatigability that allows people to overcome this strange and unrelenting beast.

It’s Not Rocket Science, Tuesday 16th February, 8pm, ITV

Picture in your mind, if you dare, an ITV series dedicated to popularising science. You’ve probably imagined a celebrity-fronted show in front of a giggle-happy studio audience where they investigate things like “Does water prevent fire?” and “Which is faster, a Red Arrow or a human?” Terrifyingly, you’d be absolutely, exactly right.

The celebrities in question are Countdown’s Rachel Riley, comedian Romesh Ranganathan, and other comedian Ben Miller, disappointingly robbing us of the mild thrill of having all the presenters with the same initials. Could they not have employed former cricketer Richie Richardson? I bet Robert Redford would have been up for it…

The show opens with the question that has plagued mankind through the ages: Which is faster, a British sprinter or a Red Arrow. So I suppose, contradicting the title of the show, it sort of IS rocket science. Except there’s no actual science at all. They just have a race, the plane against Adam Gemili. Then a Red Arrow pilot is brought back into the studio, where it quickly becomes apparent that the audience has been fed pure laughing gas and is being furiously tickled whenever anyone cracks a joke.

Then Rachel Riley undergoes a challenge. She is made to slide down a zipwire, through some water spray, then some fire, to see if she ends up a hideously mangled, charred corpse at the bottom. Her voice over contains portentous phrases like “With my life in grave danger…” and “…could prove fatal!” All of which tension is slightly offset by the fact that she’s just introduced the pre-recorded item from the studio, where she looks both alive and entirely unbarbecued.

There are other items, which involve Romesh Ranganathan being tackled by a rugby player, and going to a school to test out new items of teaching technology, and in a final and brutally unsatisfying film, Ben Miller and Joey Essex try and drive a car with the power of their brains. That’s not a sentence you ever expected to read.

I feel sorry for the presenters, existing on this meagre fare. In particular Ben Miller, who actually studied a PhD in solid state physics, and who is so clever he might already have known that water prevents things from burning. Perhaps later in the series he’ll be able to exert a bit more influence on proceedings, and up the science quotient somewhat. I particularly like the idea of him doing an item on his PhD thesis: Novel quantum effects in low-temperature quasi-zero-dimensional mesoscopic electron systems. Probably with a cameo from Su Pollard.

Best Walks with a View with Julia Bradbury, Friday 19th February, 8pm, ITV

When I first came across the title of this show, I admit to being not a little intrigued. Subsequently re-reading and discovering it wasn’t Best Walks with a View OF Julia Bradbury was a slight disappointment.

Instead, according to the show’s blurb, this is a series about going on walks with beautiful vistas, the kind of gentle stroll you can do with all the family. The first episode features a simple six-mile skip along the coast of Anglesey. Whoa! A stroll with all the family??? Clearly they’ve not met my children, for whom any use of their legs for more than 50 metres constitutes both a gross violation of their human rights and an excuse for a monumental tantrum. I’d have as much chance of getting them six miles around the coast of Anglesey as I would of swimming to New Guinea wearing concrete boots and swimming trunks made of chum.

Interestingly, the blurb also refers to Julia Bradbury as an “expert walker”. Aren’t all of us over the age of three expert walkers? I certainly like to think of it as one of my more instinctive abilities. I am even able to carry it out while chewing gum. But enough of my achievements.

And, now I come to think about it, enough of my snideness. Because this is an absolutely lovely programme. The walk itself is certainly stunningly picturesque, taking in rugged coastline with a backdrop of Snowdonia and Caernarfon Castle. Bradbury is an engaging and cheerfully enthusiastic presence, and her forays into areas of local interest, history and culture are pleasingly diverting.

I can’t watch this programme without thinking of my dad, whose passions in life, after his family and his work, have always included Julia Bradbury and walking. Possibly even before family and work! In slightly healthier days, he would have loved this programme. I suppose the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.

Moonlighting box set

Some shows are remembered because they were of their time. Others, because they were big budget spectaculars. Others still, because they were just consistently, solidly good. But occasionally a show comes along that is remembered because it was completely revolutionary. Moonlighting, a comedy drama that ran from 1985 to 1989, was just such a show.

The series starred Cybill Shepherd as Maddie Hayes, an ex-model who lost her fortune after being embezzled by her accountant. Desperate, she ends up working at the detective agency she had started up as a tax write-off. The Blue Moon Detective Agency was run by a wise-cracking gumshoe called David Addison, played by a then-unknown actor called Bruce Willis.

The series was ostensibly about the pair investigating various cases, but was as much about the will-they, won’t-they relationship between David and Maddie, who seemed to love and loathe each other at the same time.

The show’s dialogue was razor sharp, with barbs zinging about with dangerous abandon. The speeches were delivered fast, and often at the same time. This is reflected in the fact that, while the standard script for a one-hour drama was 60 pages, Moonlighting squeezed around 100 pages of dialogue into each episode.

That wasn’t the only revolutionary aspect of the show. It was also the fact that it was equally effective as both a drama and a comedy – something routine enough now, but unheard of 30 years ago. In 1985, the show became the first ever to be nominated both for Best Comedy and Best Drama by the Director’s Guild of America.

And, perhaps most memorably of all, the show played with its audience, and flouted the ultimate rule of scripted television by breaking the fourth wall. Characters regularly spoke directly to the camera, or the camera would pull back to reveal the show’s set, cardboard walls, sound engineers and all. One memorable exchange saw Maddie shout: “You can’t just bust in here,” to which David replied succinctly “Oh yeah? Tell that to the writers.”

But the show wasn’t just about breaking rules. It was tender, funny, warm and, when it wanted to be, intelligent, once memorably dedicating an episode to a Taming of the Shrew pastiche. Throw in some engaging supporting characters (in particular rhyming receptionist Agnes) a host of star cameos (including Orson Welles’ last TV appearance) and a marvellous theme tune by Al Jarreau and you had a recipe for TV magic.

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