You can’t turn around these days without coming across a media property that riffs on the ‘80s or ‘90s. Nostalgia is big business, and can even lead to great art, as we saw when “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” garnered just about every award it was nominated for.
But the upswing in interest in all things O.J. should not lead Hollywood and the entertainment industry to put the former football player to work again. No company would come out of such an arrangement thinking they’d made the right call.
Even though the parole board granted him his freedom and he will walk out of a Nevada prison at some point relatively soon, allowing him to join the world of entertainers and reality-show stars would be a terrible idea.
Let’s set aside for the moment the issue of his innocence or guilt in the matter of the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Simpson was convicted of an array of crimes in Nevada that prompted a judge to give him a minimum of nine years in prison. Lots of reality-show stars have checkered pasts. But being convicted of 12 criminal counts in a court of law is far more serious than the usual speeding tickets or drunk-and-disorderly citations found on the resumes of some reality stars or D-listers.
Before the unsavory events that Simpson was part of in 2007, some of us remember what happened the year before. In late 2006, Fox planned to air a special in which Simpson would discuss the contents of a book titled “If I Did It.” The book and special were parts of one of the most tawdry media spectacles of the modern age, one that the network found difficult to live down. In the special, Simpson would have allegedly described how he committed the murders of his ex-wife and Goldman. The attempts to spin it away from what it clearly was — a heinous attempt to cash in on the deaths of two human beings — crashed and burned.
Fox was clearly taken aback by the firestorm that the announcement of the book and special generated. But there’s no reason to think such a thing would not happen again. If nothing else, other media companies could learn from that depressing spectacle, and avoid giving Simpson the kind of media spotlight that would undoubtedly reflect negatively on their brands.
A scripted program that intelligently and thoughtfully explored the complex set of events set off by the brutal death of Brown Simpson and Goldman was a terrific idea. The brilliant ESPN documentary “OJ: Made in America” took a different tack but was a multiple award-winner for similar reasons: It cogently excavated matters of race, crime, punishment and media failings. There’s a lot to examine in that trial, in the troubled history of the LAPD and in the ways in which sports stars are often shielded from the consequences of their worst behavior, and that’s why stories about the O.J. circus can be not only compelling but necessary.
But it’s hard to forget that “OJ: Made in America” put into detailed context the chilling 911 tapes in which Nicole Brown Simpson was clearly terrorized. That Simpson beat his wife, who feared him deeply, is not in doubt. And for those pushing a redemption narrative — and that was the spin Simpson and his attorney put forward during the hearing — it was hard to square with the combative stance the former athlete took at various points during the proceeding. America has learned (or re-learned) a lot about the O.J. murder trial in the last year or two; what’s far less clear is whether Simpson himself has learned anything from the past few decades.
Giving Simpson a slick reality show or some other lucrative vehicle that allows him to make money while rehabilitating his image would be one more example of the media — more specifically, the entertainment industry — getting it wrong. Making O.J. the center of a new story and telling it from his point of view would, inevitably, make him sympathetic to some. Point of view is a powerful tool, and storytellers taking up O.J.’s cause, whatever the environment, would not hard-pressed to resist a redemption narrative. But that tendency would have the unfortunate effect of minimize and possibly even de-legitimize those who think his troubled past — which was not, as he claimed at the hearing, free of violence — is problematic in the extreme.
America loves second chances, but this one has far too many queasy elements to make it work.
Of course ex-prisoners deserve a chance to rebuild their lives. But whenever Simpson is allowed to resume his life, let’s just hope it’s far, far away from the spotlight.