We never did find out the verdict in the Sam Sweet trial. The information superhighway crashed over an improbably vast distance right at the climax, leaving the jury preamble suspended in air, hammered down by a squall of random dot pixel static noise, and gazed upon by flummoxed, unbelieving, desperate, gawking faces. Chip Douglas relegated the region to the 19th century in an instant. For a moment, impending chaos hung in the air, violent urges held in check by the anesthetizing glow of the TV screen ready to spill over. Then KG symbolically reached for a book to soothe his entertainment needs, and the murderous rage that momentarily swelled in the absence of the boob tube, and the denial of resolution, subsided.
In The Cable Guy, media precedes reality, or just swallows it whole, while eating its own tail, what have you. Brother Sweet Brother was always destined to outlive in the cultural hive-mind, superimposed over time. Scoff if you must; a couple decades from now, Cuba Gooding Jr. and O.J. Simpson will conflate, too. Months into the return of the O.J. saga—The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story with Made in American now hot on its heels—a cultural landmark from which we will never escape, the dense mediation has already come undone. Really, it’s unmoored from the beginning as ACS starts with the granular Rodney King footage and the ensuing riots. ACS is alarmingly quick to head for more temperate climes.
Grain gives way to gloss but quick; prestige anthology aspirations rear up. This is not the context or the dénouement MC Ride, Zach Hill, and Flatlander had in mind—moving from incendiary (“Handheld dream/Shot in hell”) to theatrical. Matters are much more liquid and difficult than this when accounting for waves of mediation. It never had a chance, and the over-eager heavy-hand of the score plastered over the footage tells us so. The meaning-making is synthetic rather than Eisensteinian. Maybe this anti-anarchy is instructive though: Chaos further contorted until it’s linear, or at least contained in chapters and articulated in the routine rhythm of character beats and dramatic arcs—from beating to decision to explosions of violence and rioting—rather than expressing the rippling or the context of this context. It’s precisely this flattening that makes ACS scan as political when it has a much more superficial game.
Through pantomime, we are treated to familiar faces pulled over formerly familiar faces, celebs wearing their best “normal people”-expressions while still trying to steal the scenes. ACS is a breathing embodiment of Dame Gervin’s museum, skirting camp with pseudo-garish embellishments, creating this odd piece where only some seem to be in on the gaudy ruse. These specters from the past are pulled into the spotlight again, portrayed with flashy, glitzy cinematography to showcase the class of the artistry. Isn’t it odd that a tale about the perils and pitfalls of celebrity worship is littered with brazen stunt casting? Entertainment value trumps all—i.e. grisly murder investigations. No one in this world has an internal monologue; every thought and every sentiment is telegraphed. There’s no room for subtext only headlines-grabbing pandering. And pander it does, with retconned/retrofitted points of interest delivered with a coprophagous grin.
It’s really a fascinating exercise on paper, an assemblage of multivariate remediation. There’s a checklist of information that needs ticking. Then there are sustained periods of more latitude. So the show ends up oscillating between faithful recreations of existing footage and bloated dramatic pieces to fill in the gaps. It swings wildly from exhaustive investigatory journalism to melodrama and back again. It’s dizzying and a little nauseating as the theaters haphazardly shift between distended backstage doings and show time razzle. The piece is an ebb and flow between familiarity and interpretation, forceful memory-jogging and recent-history scribbling. A moment like a cameraman surreptitiously peeping over a wall to catch infamous footage, or a Ford Bronco hurtling down the freeway, treated with the limited circa-early-’90s aesthetics, teeters between mimicry and parody. As we watch, we seek precise tableaus, but still have to grapple with the freeform surroundings—our mediated glaucoma intensified: A work that is intermittently clear before receding into the blur of pastiche, then swinging back to reorient momentarily, and so on.
The bygone becomes archival before our very eyes. The narrow aesthetics of the not-too-distant-past pits television against itself. In the constantly-mutating televisual landscape, anthologies have carved out a larger share, but they’re yet to be radicalized, just a doubling-down on closure and steady pacing, circling back on TV beginnings with a vengeance. The series will undoubtedly try to sit on the fence for the duration—ominous moments here and there, feigned acknowledgements of institutional inequalities without commitment or incision, factions and forces held in balance, histrionics amped but cancelled out. The only closure in this case is ambiguity. The only point of entrance is familiarity. The constraints are tighter here, adapting the murk of well-documented media speculation. Despite this they try a balancing act: a clean narrative with holes. When this narrative is put back into three dimensions, everything is unnaturally angular, more geometrical and bloodless.
Back in the halcyon days of the Hays Code and the TV Code, all was clear skies and smooth sailing. It was a simpler time where justice was swiftly meted out and honest, hard-working Americans never had to question the moral fiber that held the country together. The divide between right and wrong was legible in our media and the powers that be aimed to keep it that way, lest some unsavory element wormed its way in to sully susceptible minds with opacity. It’s already easy to forget that this detailed, elongated crime narrative form is something rather current. The freedom to leave things open-ended and to let uncertainty and cynicism border on pervasive paranoia is something we’re still working out in TV, and these types of texts are the testing ground displaying the kinks.
ACS is the made-for-TV-movie dramatization we deserve, a charade of a charade set at the witching hour of prime time in prestige drag. It’s a lifeless retelling, a courtroom drama set in the uncanny valley. It masquerades as a detail-oriented, objective account but it’s as on-brand as If I Did It—a feeding that is meant to build hunger rather than satiate. Perhaps all that survived the O.J. trial in the collective consciousness was the cultural ephemera it spawned (see: Kato’s butchering of the National Anthem on Baskets, most recently). I’ve heard reference to “Dancing Itos” more than any single piece of evidence in the lead up. Cultural saturation is itself the legacy, a demarcation point when media-madness proved carnivorousness and the 24-hour news-cycle gained sentience. Crime and punishment narratives have held up for ages as lucid rehearsals of narrative efficiency—with clear action-reaction matrices. Our current age requires something a bit more buoyant, but with an inverted neo-Kafkaesque flavor. Lindbergh baby be damned; this is the template.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.