In the age of binge-watching, it’s virtually impossible to have a conversation with a group about TV: “I’m only up to Season 3 of ‘House of Cards.’” “I haven’t seen ‘Master of None’ yet.” “All the episodes of ‘Quantico’ are on my DVR.” All of the explanations end the with the same two words: “NO SPOILERS.”
However, as much as the general viewing public insists they hate spoilers for their favorite shows, the evidence is increasingly stacked against them. See: The people intent on finding out whether Jon Snow is alive or dead on “Game of Thrones.” Or those who fearlessly wade into comments sections even though they know plot details about “The Americans” await them. And now, the most telling sign: The extremely addictive “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
The FX drama, which aired its penultimate episode Tuesday night, is about one of the most famous trials of our history, and it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know the major plot points: Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered; the White Ford Bronco was caught; the glove didn’t fit; O.J. was acquitted. It doesn’t matter – the series is a huge success, and makes quibbling about spoilers seem utterly ridiculous.
The series, created by Ryan Murphy, is the clearest proof that if you make a well-told story, it simply doesn’t matter if viewers know the ending. While this is commonly accepted for films and biopics inspired by real events, it’s quite another feat to sustain a true story for a 10-episode TV series.
Despite the fact that millions saw O.J. Simpson and A.C. Cowlings in the White Ford Bronco chase, it’s hard not to be swept up in the second episode as Simpson holds a gun to his head while the police are close behind. Or when Simpson proves in an exaggerated fashion in the courtroom that the glove (which prosecutors claimed he wore to kill Nicole) is too small. What’s going to happen?! Of course people know. But they still watch the episode. Some hold their breath.
So what’s the most important element you need when making a fascinating series that has already been spoiled by, well, life? The small but riveting behind-the-scenes details. For this show, that includes the intense amount of sexism faced by embattled prosecutor Marcia Clark; the in-fighting on Simpson’s defense team; Simpson ordering prosecutor Chris Darden to get off his bench; the tension between Robert and Kris Kardashian at home; and the jury’s behind-the-scenes revolt after being sequestered for eight months.
While some parts are exaggerated for television, some real-life figures, including Marcia Clark, say the script (based off Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life”) gets most of the big details correct.
The risk of spoilers is a hotly debated topic, even in academia. While one recent study argues that spoilers ruin escapism (or the very reason you watch a TV show in the first place), another strongly insists they actually cause people to like stories even more.
Either way, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” has struck a nerve: The series has a 97 percent “fresh” rating from critics on review site Rotten Tomatoes, and 91 percent from the general audience. The premiere broke records for FX with 5.1 million same-day viewers, bumped up to 8.3 million with time-shifted viewing, an impressive number for cable. The first six episodes averaged 7.7. million viewers who watch the episode within a week, according to FX.
Ultimately, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a reminder that if you happen to stumble across the ending to “Breaking Bad” or “The Wire,” take a breath – it’s possible to have a great experience watching a TV show even if you know what happens. Sometimes, not obsessing or frantically guessing the ending even adds to it. You can just enjoy it in the moment.
The argument is perhaps best summed up by The Washington Post’s TV critic Hank Stuever, who received a question in his weekly TV chat that read:
“Please tell me why I should watch the People vs. OJ. when I know the ending. Likewise, I just don’t understand the praise for movies like Spotlight and Apollo 13. TV shows and movies need tension in not knowing the ending. At least Titanic was a movie about a love story on a boat sinking, not a movie about a boat sinking.”
Stuever replied: “Please tell me why I should go to Paris when I’ve seen pictures of it and I know what it looks like.”