Sunday, April 17, 2016

Two of the One-Two Punch

And now, because I already had it in the can, the second bit I shared with Boman but no one else. Until rioght now. Also slightly outdated, but a little fresher since the FX series just ended.


June 17, 1994. I was working at a movie theater in Daytona Beach, FL - the late, lamented Volusia Square 8. I walked into our breakroom/tiny-locker-and-changing-room to find several co-workers hovered around a small television set. There was live feed of a white Ford Bronco driving gingerly down a freeway with what looked like several dozen police cruisers following it. Not close enough to be escorts, but not nearly fast or urgent enough to be a pursuit.

I asked no one in particular, "What is this?"

One of them responded, "OJ Simpson is in the Bronco. The police are following him home to arrest him for murder."

I looked at the screen for another few seconds, processing this. Then I started laughing. Uproariously. It immediately made my top 5 list of funniest things I had ever seen (up to that point). The mental image that came to mind - and the immediate comparison - was that of an old Warner Brothers cartoon where they were showing a bad guy's "secret hideout," only it had every neon sign imaginable pointing it out. The secret was completely blown. How secret could it be if everyone in the world knew where it was? What suspense was there in this farcical chase when everyone knew where he was headed and what would happen?

The whole thing rushed by like a series of catchphrases and highspots. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia Clark. Robert Shapiro making minimal but "Look-there-he-is!" appearances. "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit." Grandstanding for any camera available. The Trial of the Century, now a television mini-series that's only slightly dramatized in comparison to the glitz, glamour, and pageantry that went part and parcel with the case of People of the State of California v. Orenthal James Simpson.

Famous people playing famous people. John Travolta himself (a producer of the series, natch) playing Shapiro. That guy from "Friends" showing how the seeds were planted for the Kardashians to become the American Royal Family. Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the suspect in question. Nathan Lane. So many more. An all-star cast recreating an all-star cast. A big production of a big production.

During the mini-series currently airing on television, several remarks have been made by some of the players in the case about "this is something big" and history being witnessed. These points are valid, as the trial of OJ Simpson may have been the watershed moment that America was finally and firmly seduced by the celebrity culture. We'd certainly flirted with it in the past, as Marilyn Monroe's death was one of the longest reigning water cooler topics behind who killed JFK, the Berlin Wall, the attempt on Ronald Reagan, and so many other actual instances in history. The lifestyles of the rich and famous were a distraction before OJ Simpson. After that trial, they were paramount in the lives of Americans.

The country already knew politicians were fallible and sometimes half-crazy, but celebrities were who we wanted to be. A Pipe dream. After that Bronco led the police on a casual tour of Los Angeles, America realized that these demigods of stage, screen, gridiron and music were just as fallible and crazy as any of us. Which meant that any of us could be that famous given the right circumstances. Those circumstances would come later in the forms of reality television (which begat the American Royal Family) and social media. But Simpson, his cadre of television-friendly attorneys, and the prosecuting team happily thrust into the spotlight begat that entire obsession.

Over twenty years later, issues of health care and strengthening our nation take a backseat to what celebrity made a controversial tweet or what nightclub the Kardashians showed up at. One of the leading candidates to run our country is a celebrity himself - a business mogul who parlayed his successes into a reality show for NBC and became famous for a catchphrase dashing the dreams of regular folk who appeared on said show. A lot of bluster and bravado, showmanship rather than intelligent discourse. That what this candidate has brought to the competition to determine the next leader of the free world. And thanks to the circus that surrounded OJ Simpson over 20 years ago, America wouldn't have it any other way.

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