ESPN’s ‘O.J.: Made in America’ is nothing short of a towering achievement

O.J. Simpson in 1980. The new five-part documentary “O.J.: Made in America” is one of the best things that will be on television this year. CREDIT: Mickey Osterreicher, ESPN Films

If I’d asked you 20 years ago to make a list of five things American culture would be obsessing over in 2016, you would have never put “the O.J. trial” on it. (For that matter, you wouldn’t have put Donald Trump on it either.)

But here we are and here it is: the Trial of the (Last) Century has become as comparable and essential to our shared narrative as the ancient tragedies, eternally up for interpretation and reenactment; thematically appropriate to almost any telling of Who We Are. The Los Angeles police and district attorney’s office made the mistake of believing that what happened on Bundy Drive in Brentwood on June 12, 1994, was a double-murder case that would withstand the glare of celebrity and sort itself out in a procedurally just manner. It never did. It never will.

Instead, in an almost bizarre confluence of nostalgia and relevance, football legend Orenthal James Simpson’s acquittal in the murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a neighborhood waiter, Ronald Goldman, has produced two near-perfect works of TV entertainment this year. Life is strange that way.

The first, FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” played as a sublime work of nonfiction theater, refining the O.J. trial’s key events into a silky smooth, deeply affecting narrative that brought it all back with an occasional dash of camp, while pushing some of our assumptions into a new light.

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In FX’s retelling, Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden were not entirely the inept prosecutors many believed them to be; they were unwittingly up against history. And the late Johnnie Cochran was not just a showboating flimflam artist, he was also on the side of angels. “The People v. O.J.” excelled at confronting the endless volumes of evidence and arguments with a less-is-more approach. It knew what to leave out.

Now, with the steadfast belief that more is more, comes director Ezra Edelman’s five-part, 7 1/2-hour documentary series for ESPN, “O.J.: Made in America.” It is nothing short of a towering achievement.

Any fear of fatigue in the topic dissipates from the first minute, which takes us to the aptly named Lovelock Correctional Center in the Nevada desert, where Edelman has acquired footage of a slightly bloated, sexagenarian Simpson appearing somewhat recently before a parole committee. “I do see in 1994 that you were arrested at the age of 46,” says a woman at the table, wondering whether Simpson could tell her a little more about that, since the file does not seem to go into detail. Is she being deliberately obtuse? Is it a wonderfully sick joke? Who are you, she seems to wonder. How did you get here?

That is the purest aim of “O.J.: Made in America” – to objectively examine how he got to this point and how we got there with him and what it all meant. Part 1, which will premiere Saturday night on ABC, is a beautiful bask in Simpson’s original up-from-nothing glory, chronicling his journey from low-income housing in San Francisco to an athletic scholarship to the University of Southern California, where he became the star running back. (Parts 2 through 5 continue on ESPN next week, under the network’s excellent “30 for 30” documentary brand. It’s a large time-investment for the viewer, yes, but I doubt you’ll feel a single minute is wasted.)

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At USC, O.J. was bathed in the adulation and benefits of white devotion, winning the Heisman Trophy and being held up as a heroic example to all. Mere blocks away, L.A. was grappling with racist policing, the aftermath of the Watts riots, the rise of militant black activism. As the clips and interviews reveal time and again, Simpson, who goes on to be universally loved as “the Juice,” could afford to disassociate himself of any question about race or civil rights. Edelman’s film is strongest on this point, delving deep into Simpson’s early life, charting his literal escape from the burdens of blackness, while his fame skyrocketed in the NFL. (And what a sharp contrast to the life and work of the recently departed Muhammad Ali.)

“For us, O.J. was colorless,” says Frank Olson, who was chairman of the Hertz rental car company when it made the profoundly successful decision to hire Simpson as its spokesman. “None of the people that we associated with looked at him as a black man.” (“A nonentity,” says Danny Bakewell, one of L.A.’s most vocal civil rights activists.)

Part 2 begins to examine the insidious and unavoidable effects of fame and fortune – the rise of a full-blown Narcissus – as Simpson parlays his TV sportscasting career and occasional movie stardom (“Capricorn One,” “The Naked Gun”) into business investments and participation in corporate America’s most exclusive realms. It’s here that he leaves his first wife for his longtime mistress, the beautiful and blond Nicole Brown.

“He was a little forceful,” Nicole told a friend, David LeBon, when she came home from her first date with Simpson, her jeans torn.

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From start to finish “O.J. Made in America” is a devastating study of a man – there are cracks visible in the Juice’s glossy veneer at every stage in his life. Parts 3 and 4 build ominously, reminding us in ways that we’ve forgotten (or to this point ignored) of just how physically abusive O.J. was to Nicole, years before he was charged with her murder. In current context it’s astonishing to see the effort that Hollywood and the sports world put in to redeeming and maintaining Simpson’s hero status after one 1989 incident made the news.

As for the murder trial itself, and the sensational way that it occupied daily life in wall-to-wall coverage, Edelman again proves himself to be a fair and thorough filmmaker. To dive any deeper into the case, you’d simply have to rewatch every single minute of the trial and read all the transcripts yourself. No stone left unturned, no eerie vibe left unfelt, “Made in America” winds up being all things to all viewers: It works for those who never once doubted O.J.’s guilt, yet it also works for those who still maintain his innocence.

For a long moment we are shown something I thought would never be seen, except by those who went to the Internet searching for it: a gruesome crime-scene photo of Nicole’s slashed-open throat, her face frozen in death. Horrific, but even in this moment, Edelman is in absolute control. This is the price of admission we pay for a lifelong fascination with the case. We must look at it (as well as the pictures of poor Ron Goldman), especially if we keep asking for it.

By the time the not-guilty verdict is read, Edelman has prepared viewers with a calmly, soberly presented foundation of our national history of racial injustice: false arrests, police brutality, the acquittals of the officers who beat Rodney King. To the moving strains of the spiritualized “Going Home” piece of Dvorak’s “New World” symphony, white viewers may well experience a new enlightenment and come to a deeper understanding of this moment of jubilation in black America. And black viewers may well see something hollow in all the jumping for joy.

Or not. “O.J.: Made in America” gets to Part 5 with plenty of room left for everyone’s ambivalence and another kind of impending recompense. A freed O.J., his fan base greatly reduced, at first panders to a black audience and is destined to fail as their hero. His arrogance is nauseating, as are his attempts to hide what’s left of his fortune from a civil judgment ordering restitution to the Brown and Goldman families. In a bizarre turn of events, Simpson winds up convicted on multiple charges of armed kidnapping, robbery and assault in a Las Vegas hotel in 2007.

The judge is seen sentencing him to 33 years in prison – is it too harsh? Some sort of karmic payback? Another miscarriage of justice? The Juice could be loose as soon as next year, when, perhaps, the saga will proceed to another unseemly epilogue. It seems somehow fated to.

Once Edelman’s final part concludes, however, comes this warm sense of exhausted relief. You finally get it. After all the media coverage, the books, the outrage, the documentaries, the miniseries – after so much sturm-und-drang, this story has at last been perfectly captured and perfectly told. Barring new evidence or perhaps a confession, no one ever need attempt to tell this saga again. It is finished, if we want it to be.

“O.J.: Made in America” (approximately 7 1/2 hours in five parts) premieres with Part 1 on Saturday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC. Parts 2 through 5 will air on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET next Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.