The myth of “true crime”: “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “Making A Murderer”

About halfway through the upcoming season of “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” a lawyer for one side of the case utters these words to his colleagues:

“Jurors go with the narrative that makes sense. We’re here to tell a story. Our job is to tell that story better than the other side tells theirs.”

It’s a simple, illuminating line of dialogue in a deceptively simple but deeply powerful series. (Long story short: It premieres Feb 2, it’s the first great show of 2016, and it’s REALLY great.) I’m leading with this phrase since I’ve been watching screeners for the series in conjunction with powering through the Netflix documentary “Making A Murderer,” and while the two seem to have at best surface-level similarities, it’s almost impossible to imagine the latter without the events that inspired the former.

I don’t mean to say that I can’t imagine the crimes depicted in “Murderer” without the events of the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I’m saying that I can’t imagine the way in which we are collectively processing “Murderer” without the instruction manual that the Simpson trial offered up in real time. June 17, 1994–the day of the infamous Bronco chase–represents a clear demarcating line between the way we try to process the criminal justice system and the ways in which we have created various outlets for being judge and jury outside of the courtroom. But both are also perfect examples of how our reactions to the crimes in question are often more important than the crimes itself. That’s not to dismiss the value of the lives lost in these cases. That loss and that grief is specific and should not be ignored. But when it comes to O.J. Simpson and Steven Avery/Brendan Dassey, these cases are less about three men and more about the circumstances brought to light through the attention brought to them.

Now, crime stories have been part of books, film and television almost since their inception of their respective mediums, as they provide a clear set of protagonists and antagonists along with a reason for them to interact. It’s a solid structure since it’s almost endlessly repeatable and (usually) offers an easy-to-understand side along which to align. The downside of this proliferation comes when “reality” steps in and is far messier than its fictional counterpart. When messiness intrudes, the desire to former a linear, explainable plot is only natural. As humans, we want to make sense of senselessness. But we also often fail to consider “true crime” in another other than the framework of works of fiction, which means that true crime is rarely true at all.

When listening to a piece of jazz, it’s often a relief to get to the part in which the tension of a piece is melodically resolved. We intuitively understand what notes are “right,” even if we have a relatively untrained auditory palate. Part of the pleasure comes from travelling through those mysterious, potentially atonal parts and returning home to something familiar. A good crime story does this: It starts off with a “normal” world, into which the atonal crime is inserted, and eventually we return to a place in which justice (for lack of a better term) is restored. That doesn’t include genres such as film noir, in which evil often goes unpunished, but even in many of those works of fiction the internal logic takes the audience to a place in which its conceivable why the villain gets away. That’s not exactly a moral resolution, but it’s a resolution all the same.

american-crime-storyWhat gets people so riled up about the Simpson/Avery cases, I suspect, is that both resist that type of resolution. Both cases were decided in court, but there was little to no agreement about what it meant. That type of senseless reduces the ability to either process the verdicts in the cases or have anything approximating a rational discussion about them. But a metric ton of the problem here comes from the very need to affix meaning almost solely on the verdicts rather than the sum total of history that created the context in which the decision was made. Because we see these trials, albeit subconsciously, in the way we might see something like an episode of “Law & Order,” we need to understand the end as the sum total of the parts that have come before. Unfortunately, since we usually can’t even agree on what we see, there’s little to no way to agree upon the final sentence (both literal and figurative) that ends them.

I understand why we fixate on guilt, since in theory that should be the easiest thing to determine. It’s both a binary option (guilty or not guilty) and embedded within a theoretically commonly held belief that the criminal justice system is the place in which those decisions are made official. But in both “Simpson” and “Murderer,” the second assumption is completely thrown out the window, and rightly so: The idea of a fair judicial system is an ideal to which we have simply not striven, at least not for all citizens. And since both programs deal with such heavy, complex topics as including (but sure as hell not limited to) race, social stratification, the increased role of media, the birth of famous-for-famous-sake culture, political corruption, and police corruption…well, you can understand why it’s easy to try and skip over all that and get to the easy-to-answer end.

Luckily, neither show skips that important work, and more importantly, neither show has to really underline its concerns with over-the-top histrionics. The stories of these crimes do all of the work for them, with the sensationalism baked into the very facts of the cases. “Simpson” underlines just how much this case served as a lightning rod for simmering tensions in a city still recovering from the aftermath of the Rodney King, a nascent world of 24-hour news desperate for ratings, and a group of people all with their own agendas, preconceptions, and prejudices colliding in a court of law broadcast to a rapt audience at home. It’s almost impossible to convey to those too young to remember, but it’s nearly impossible to calculate how new, weird, and yes, compelling all of this was. You simply couldn’t avoid it. The attention engendered the Bronco chase turned the trial into spectator sport, one in which every move was dissected in real time. The court in Los Angeles was small, but the court of opinion stretched all the way to the East Coast and beyond.

Now, having a global opinion about everything is pretty commonplace. I mean, can you freakin’ IMAGINE Twitter covering the Simpson trial? Well, sure, since that’s what many of us did while watching “Making A Murderer,” which doesn’t have the glossiness of “Simpson” but is all the more hypnotic for its banality. (Myself included! I’m part of the problem! As per usual!) If the Simpson trial incited excitement due to its proximity to fame, then the Avery case chills for its distance from it. One of the things I kept thinking while watching all ten episodes over a 24-hour period wasn’t, “Did he do it?” but “How many other cases like this aren’t getting this type of treatment?” I understand that “Making A Murderer” is a catchier title, but it really should have been called “The Shit People Do When They Realize People Are Actually Paying Attention”. A murder in a salvage yard may not be universal. But the ideal that certain citizens get away with more things than others due to their positions of power? Well, that’s a lot easier to extrapolate.

I instinctively knew that the point-of-view employed by the documentary made me sympathetic to the plight of the Averys, but I also understood that most of that county probably saw them as the Gerhardts from the second season of “Fargo.” I recognized that that perspective made me semi-loathe Mike Halbach and his blind faith in the criminal justice system, even though he’s a guy looking for justice for his deceased sister. I tried to fight that as best I could, but even with all that said, there’s such a damning amount of evidence on display that each successive conviction of the Avery family felt like suffering not even Damon Lindelof would heap upon the Job-esque characters of “The Leftovers.” All of it felt like a doubling down of past improprieties rather than a reaffirmation of an initially correct decision.

I always wondered how the Simpson jury could return with the verdict it did, something that the FX series plays with masterfully: The Los Angeles’ DA’s office thinks they have a slam-dunk, and a great deal of the narrative thrust of the 10-episode series comes from their confidence eroding as Simpson’s “Dream Team” pick apart the seemingly open-and-shut case. It’s tempting to say the dissonance between what we know and what the people involved in the case know produces something akin to a Greek tragedy. But that’s only true if you think Simpson did it, or think the verdict itself is the only thing that matters. What the DA’s office failed to incorporate (if indeed understand) during its prosecution is something the defense intuitively understood: The story of the double homicide of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman mattered less the country’s horrible history of institutionalized racism, recently embodied by the King verdict. It was easier to understand that than to understand how a famous, seemingly affable athlete/actor could stab people beyond recognition.

dean-spang-800Similarly, Teresa Halbach seemed at times an afterthought in her own murder trial. It’s something Mike laments about often to the press, and indeed the center of Avery’s defense centers on what seems like a multi-decade grudge against the Avery family by the Manitowoc County Sheriff’s Department. But rather than find their own version of Mark Furman, defense attorneys Dean Strang and Jerry Buting run up against what seems like a united front of police officers, sheriffs, DAs, judges, and even DEFENSE ATTORNEYS seemingly hell-bent on keeping a lid on a separate case from 1985 in which Steven Avery was arrested for a rape he did not commit. Strang and Buting’s search for evidence seemingly uncovers evidence designed to produce resolution (that tampered blood vial, for instance) only to yield more roadblocks. When the case moves into the federal level of appeals, outside the nominal grip of local officials united in lockstop, no progress is made. Even when the video of Brendan Dassey’s confession is played for a jury, a video that might be the most horrific things I’ve even seen in terms of banal terror, nothing gets overturned.

And that’s where the real anger comes from, ultimately, when it comes to both the original Simpson trial and our collective awakening to the seeming injustices in Manitowoc County. It’s less about the verdicts themselves (although that’s part of it) and more about the sneaking suspicion that reality itself is not being acknowledged. Again: my notion of the “reality” of the Avery case comes from what the filmmakers have shown. My “reality” of the Simpson trial is informed but also partial. I’d LIKE to think I’m smart enough to know I don’t know everything, even while being constantly called to the carpet for not seeing the whole picture. But that’s not exactly a common viewpoint. Many “know what they know” and they know it’s right. Anything that shakes that faith produces a dangerous dissonance. It’s an instinct that a very different show–USA’s “Mr. Robot”–so successfully depicted last summer: When people don’t see the world the way that you do, it can drive you fucking insane.

I remember very clearly where I was when the Simpson verdict came in back in 1995: I was a sophomore in college, and living in a dorm in which there was a central tower around which was a circular set of rooms about four stories high. When the verdict was announced, you could hear simultaneous screams from nearly every room of that circle. Some were cheering, some were crying foul. Eventually, the screams within the rooms became screams across the lawn, as people from the safety of their own abodes decided to discuss the merits of the verdict through barely-opened windows. No one actually spilled out onto the shared lawn, but let’s just say it wasn’t exactly cordial in the dining hall that night.

What people failed to do then, and largely fail to do now, is talk to each other rather than at each other. This tendency has only calcified over the past two decades: It’s absolutely impossible to have anything resembling a reasonable political discussion at this point, since it’s just a lot of people screaming past each other while retreating further into their own corners. That means it’s really difficult to reach some sort of middle ground on big-picture issues, which is bad enough on a national level but almost worse on a local one. Yes, we need to fix whatever corruption is in Wisconsin right now. But it’s not like Wisconsin is some isolated instance in a field of supremely just state court systems.

“Making A Murderer” never says it’s about other trials like this, because it doesn’t have to do so. People got incensed about the Simpson trial without understanding its representational meaning. People should be more incensed about the Avery trial for that very same reason. It’s not just about the seedy, unfair culture that directly and indirectly put them into the courtroom in the first place, regardless of their actual guilt. It’s about the seedy, unfair culture that has already put others into the courtroom and countless more in the future.

All of this is a way to say that both “Simpson” and “Murderer” work not as “true crime,” but almost in the way that genre fiction works to indirectly illuminate its primary meaning. Neither show is allegorical, but they never make the mistake of just being about the case it depicts. And it’s important to watch both shows as such, much in the way that it’s useful to watch a show like “Battlestar: Galactica” for its analysis of post-9/11 America as much as a pew-pew-shoot-aliens sci-fi adventure show. “Simpson” succeeds when it depicts Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, who is gonna win a metric ton of awards for this) as both a showman AND someone who innately and honestly believed in the causes he fought for. “Murderer” succeeds when it shows Strang nearly undone by his shaken faith in the judicial system.

They are specific individuals in stories that invoke power due to their universality. Ideally, these shows should spark arguments and solutions about the structure that fosters such cases. Instead, what will most likely happen will be that we’ll use hashtags in the short term to tweet past each other and move onto the next hot-button issue that we all decide is a travesty. But that won’t solve the fact that we have a leading Republican presidential candidate that galvanizes prejudice in order to foment anger, that racism is still part of the everyday fabric of our lives with or without Trump’s help, and that there are more people everyday that fear that law enforcement doesn’t protect everyone equally.

“Making A Murderer” doesn’t show how far we’ve come since the Simpson trial. It shows our devolution into ever more fractured, isolated, and entrenched positions. We’ve tried to reduce things to their simplest terms, and we can’t even get those right. If anything, we’re all guilty of moving in the wrong direction when it comes to fixing the systemic problems that threaten our very liberty. That, and not the outcome of three individual verdicts, are why these two shows are so important, and could become a lot more if people will only listen to what they are really trying to say.