Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched the Season 1 finale of “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Episode 10, titled “The Verdict.”
Let’s get what we all knew was coming out of the way: In the series, as in life, O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the charges against him. But the not guilty verdict was never the point. For the producers of FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” their story was always about the journey, not the destination.
Executive producers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander tell Variety they’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction to the show. “I think we always really believed in the story and the quality of the work that everyone was doing, but it’s not only just simply that people are watching, it’s that people are talking about it,” says Karaszewski. “They’re talking about the themes that we brought up, like about the race issues and the gender issues. That’s very gratifying.”
What surprised you the most about the reaction to the show?
Alexander: It’s not just people reacting to the soap opera or to the more circus story points. They’re talking about race in America and the police and how women are treated differently in the workforce, and how celebrities are treated differently than normal people. To turn on the computer every Wednesday morning, it’s like all these college papers suddenly appeared, taking the thread of the stories apart.
Karaszewski: We gave a lot of these real people their dignity back. Twenty years ago, you only saw Marcia Clark and Chris Darden and Johnnie Cochran from that angle in the courtroom, that surface-level angle. Over the years, they’ve become total caricatures, literally, like on “Seinfeld.” It was a real effort by us and our writing staff to show these people as real human beings and to help you try to understand their dilemma. It’s so nice to see the reactions that Marcia Clark and Chris Darden are getting. Johnnie Cochran had become this cartoon of the guy in the flashy suit with the rhymes, and we showed you how sincere he was about this mission. I think a lot of people initially tuned into this show thinking it was going to be a camp fest, and when they found that it was going for something deeper, I’m glad that they stayed.
You weren’t just telling a story about a crime that happened twenty years ago; you were able to tap into issues that we’re talking about right now.
Karaszewski: Even that surprised us. When we started out, we knew there was a richness to the story and to the themes. So often in history, America thinks it’s post-racial and then something happens and you realize, “Wait a second, we’re not post-racial.” To have Ferguson happen. To have Hillary Clinton called strident and asked why doesn’t she smile more — the week of the “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” episode. You couldn’t help just making these parallels. As much as we think we’ve changed, the world still is the same place.
Alexander: We were always going to lead off with Rodney King and the L.A. riots and make that the big idea of the show. All of the shootings of black Americans, with different police departments, started about two years ago. We had just opened the writers’ room and we already had the bible, but we were starting to flesh out the remaining eight episodes and it started to feel like this needed to be much more up-front. I’d say that led to — especially for Johnnie and Chris — much richer characters, and talking about these issues a lot more than we may have thought originally.
What was your reaction when the knife was found on O.J.’s property?
Karaszewski: My reaction was, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” To be honest, there’s been a number of knives found over the years and my thought was just, instantly, to dismiss it. Then as I was making eggs in the morning, I turned on CNN and they had stopped talking about Donald Trump for a minute and were just talking non-stop about the knife. They gave the knife two or three hours of straight footage. I think none of us really put any kind of belief in that the knife is going to come back with DNA evidence. (Ed. note: The LAPD has ruled that the knife is not the murder weapon.) The truth about the trial is there was never a lack of evidence against O.J. Simpson. Our plot is how the trial became about something else completely. Certainly a knife that’s been in the home of a police officer for twenty years that was randomly found one day is not going to change anything.
Let’s talk about the finale itself. How did you get inside the jury deliberations? Was that from the jurors’ books?
Alexander: Yeah, it’s pretty documented. As always, everybody wrote books. I think there are three or four juror books. Jeffrey Toobin has lots of stuff about the jurors and the deliberations, and the fact that Anise (Aschenbach)– who was affectionately called “The Demon” by the defense, who was the older white woman — she had stated during voir dire that she had once pulled a Henry Fonda, from “Twelve Angry Men,” where she had flipped an entire jury. That’s why she was Johnnie Cochran’s worst nightmare. She had done it once, maybe she can do it again. We knew the original vote was ten to two (not guilty to guilty) and there were two white women in the room. We know that Anise tried to make a case and she gave it the college try and then gave a look around the room and realized this wasn’t going to happen.
Karaszewski: I think it was all set up in our earlier episode about the jury, that these people were so burned out by the time they got to the verdict that they just wanted to go home. I think the jury gets a really bad rap. Yes, they only spent four hours deliberating this case. But I think that one of the key things for us making the series was to help you understand the verdict. We were never trying to re-try O.J. Simpson. We were going to try to make it so when you actually got to that room, it all makes sense.
It is unthinkable that they only took four hours to deliberate.
Karaszewski: I wish those jurors had deliberated longer. I would feel better about the system if they’d given it, I don’t know, a full day? One of our broadest lines is Judge Ito gets a phone call and he says, “You’ve got to be s—ting me,” or some variation of that, which I’m not sure Judge Ito actually ever said. That was the attitude we needed, just the fact that this was unheard of.
Alexander: All of that stuff with all the lawyers flying out of town. I mean, that was all real because you don’t get four-hour verdicts on a double-murder trial.
There was a line when one of the jurors said, “You’re not ever going to convince me beyond a reasonable doubt.” Given everything that they’d heard — given the Mark Furhman testimony, given the gloves — you do see their perspective.
Karaszewski: You understand it. That really is what we wanted people to do. To people who didn’t understand it, we were like, “How could that have just happened?” We totally get it. We understand it.
Alexander: The genius of the defense was just to keep throwing out contrary theories. It didn’t really matter if the theories didn’t cohere. All you needed was for one idea to stick with one juror and one idea to stick with another juror.
Karaszewski: As long as you can create that reasonable doubt, you don’t have a conviction.
Were you worried about building the drama to the verdict in the final episode?
Alexander: Episode ten always looked like a balloon payment. At a certain point, you’re getting to this point and it’s the verdict. People always make this joke when they’re on Twitter that, “No spoilers for the O.J. Simpson verdict.” We were always very scared that it might have that feeling of inevitability that we were trying to avoid for the rest of the episodes, but I think it actually surprised us that that inevitability gave the episodes almost more power, that knowing the outcome and making all the actions before it so deliberate, it’s almost like “United 93” or “Titanic.” It’s slow-motion crashing because you know what’s going to happen. It’s not a suspense thing, it’s just more emotional because you know it’s coming and it tears you apart.
Karaszewski: We wanted it to play as outright tragedy for everybody but Johnnie. We wanted everybody to lose.
The finale put a lot of attention on O.J.’s life after the verdict. He throws a party, and none of his friends come. Were you trying to make us sympathize with him?
Karaszewski: It’s bookending the show in that O.J.’s opening scene in the series is before the crimes had been discovered and he’s still The Juice. He’s a swaggering celebrity, gets in the limo and the limo driver is in awe of him and O.J. is telling war stories about meeting famous people when he was young. He’s got that power that he knows that any stranger who meets him is looking up to him. We wanted to finish with O.J. knowing he no longer has that. He will never be that graceful, Roman god up on that pedestal who the statue represents. In O.J.’s mind, he thought when he was not guilty he’d go back to his old life. He’d go back to Hertz. He’d go back to making “Naked Gun” movies. People would say, “He was not guilty.” What we wanted to show was the fact that that was not the case.
Alexander: We couldn’t fit in everything we loved, but there was a completely wacko little mini-subplot where … O.J. was going to get $25 million for a TV special the day or two after the acquittal, where he would sit down with Larry King and his family and they would tell stories and he would take call-in questions and he would make enough money to live off of for the rest of his life. It was like he was going to get a big, fat payday which is so completely perverse. At the last second, the network pulled out.
Karaszewski: O.J., at this point in his life, his job was being O.J. He was a movie star, but he wasn’t really in movies. He was a pitchman, but even that had gone past him now. He was paid to go places and golf and be a corporate spokesman. It was really just about being this comfortable, nice-guy celebrity with a great smile. After being accused of this murder and after the nine-month circus, he couldn’t go back to that. He was a man without a country. For O.J, it was the existential horror of realizing he is no longer O.J., he is no longer The Juice. We don’t want it to be that O.J. won.
One criticism that’s come up throughout the series is about giving voice or equal time to the Goldmans and Browns. Can you talk about your decisions about when and where to include them?
Alexander: Our memories of the trial were that Fred was the face of the families, and Fred was the most vocal. We tried to give him a few strong scenes. We gave him the giant, very overwrought monologue in episode four which was that “You don’t understand what it’s like” monologue.
Karaszewski: That would be among my top scenes of the entire season, to be quite honest.
Alexander: Episode nine, during the Fuhrman tapes, Fred gave this amazing press conference outside the courthouse where he was so outraged that “People don’t even talk about Ron and Nicole anymore. All we do is talk about this Mark Fuhrman guy and tapes and a screenwriter in North Carolina and who cares? Who cares if the LAPD’s racist? LAPD didn’t frame O.J. Simpson. O.J. Simpson killed my son. Why is this happening? It’s just this horrible nightmare.” We tried to put that in there to remind the audience. Again, we’re not making a show about the Goldman family and the Brown family. We’re making a show about the trial, but we wanted to occasionally remind the audience that the victims were forgotten during this trial.
Karaszewski: It was very important to us, I think, that the last image in the entire series is of Ron and Nicole. I had someone come up to me and say, “I’ve never cried before in the ‘whatever happened to’ section of a movie.” You hear about how these other people managed to live their lives and have all these other things happen to them, and it comes right down to Ron and Nicole. They didn’t get to have a future.