Commentary

20 years later, O.J. and the white Bronco ride again

New York TimesJune 11, 2014 

Beginning last fall, we seem to have entered a 12-month period heavy with anniversaries, which allows us to pause and ask: Why observe them?

Perhaps to note a traumatic moment in history (the 50th of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination) or a turning point (the 50th of the Civil Rights Act and Freedom Summer). Perhaps to commemorate heroism (the 70th of D-Day). Perhaps to relish a cultural sea change (the 50th of the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”; the 45th of Woodstock).

An anniversary this week, though, is neither high-minded nor joyful because one of the main reasons to mark it is to imagine how much worse our collective behavior would be if the same thing were to happen today. It’s the 20th anniversary of the two killings for which O.J. Simpson stood trial, a case that ended in his acquittal.

Watch either “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: What the Jury Never Heard,” a “Dateline” special this week on NBC, or “O.J.: Trial of the Century,” on Investigation Discovery, and you can’t help but be struck by how the train-wreck voyeurism that seized the nation would have been geometrically worse had Twitter and such been injected into the equation.

The NBC program, which aired Wednesday night, promised more than it delivered. Yes, a few bits of evidence were mentioned that the jury didn’t get to consider, but this was basically a reconstruction of the crime and trial with some moderately interesting interviews thrown in. If you wallowed in it 20 years ago, you’ll presumably enjoy reliving it all now.

Investigation Discovery gives the same material a somewhat different treatment in its program (9 p.m. Thursday): It tells the story entirely with film and audio clips, no narration or commentary included. That’s an impressive technique when applied to history that is not so recent. Here, it was easily done because the Simpson case may have been the most heavily filmed and otherwise documented trial in history. That doesn’t necessarily make it the “Trial of the Century,” though. Feel free to look up “Lindbergh baby,” “The Rosenbergs” and a few others.

Members of the generation that has reached adulthood since the Simpson case probably won’t watch these or other programs pegged to the anniversary – hey, 1994 is the Stone Age – but they might be surprised at some of the figures who turn up. Robert Kardashian (who died in 2003), Simpson’s friend and the father of those reality-TV self-parodies, makes an appearance in both programs; Kris Jenner, his ex-wife, was an interviewee in the NBC offering. The case was, as the NBC narration says, “television’s first reality show,” and that is primarily how both programs treat it.

The anniversary might be occasion to reflect on what the case said about two issues that are still with us, domestic violence and racially unequal justice. And, to be fair, both programs nod to these. The shows just don’t go into them in much depth, content to view the case as a pop-culture phenomenon. Would we be any less inclined to rubberneck today? No, of course not. Thanks to social media, we would, dismayingly, go even crazier.

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