The idea of anything serious on the celebrity-mad E! channel is the chief reason the O.J. Civil Trial has been subject to so much knee-jerk derision. Each day during O.J. Simpson’s civil trial, E! re-creates the testimony of the preceding day — or as Greg Agnew, the E! correspondent who anchors the series, explains: ”We are taking the most dramatic moments from the court reporters’ very own transcripts, and we are reenacting them word for word — with actors.”
To be sure, the result is often like a bad episode of The People’s Court, but that’s always been one of my definitions of real life anyway. The actors do what amounts to soap opera acting, in the sense of memorizing big chunks of expository material and delivering it with a minimum of craft. Because TV cameras have been banished from the courtroom during the civil case, most of the lawyers and witnesses are unfamiliar to us — which frees the actors from doing strict impersonations. But when an all-too-well-known name pops up, The O.J. Civil Trial turns blurrily surreal. (The show’s legal analyst, attorney Charles Rosenberg, recently abandoned lawyer talk for a moment to declare, ”This case exists in a different reality.”)
E!’s Kato Kaelin is played by Theo R. Smith, who is disconcerting: He looks less like Kaelin than like Dana Carvey doing Kato in some lost Saturday Night Live sketch. Calvin Jung’s ever-brooding Judge Hiroshi Fujisaki sports hair that looks spray-painted with gray. And Stephen Wayne Eskridge, who embodies a deeply detached O.J., is fascinating: His O.J. looks slightly older and far more self-aware than the real-life subject. In fact, Eskridge is so quietly compelling, he leaves me wondering whom he thinks killed Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Since showbiz permeates just about everything in culture today, wishing E! would leave the spirits of the victims alone is hopeless. Besides, Agnew’s summaries of the case are every bit as straightforward and concise as any other network reporter’s. And aren’t these reenactments merely the logical TV equivalent of a courtroom artist’s sketchings? It’s not as if E! were making up the dialogue.
The O.J. Civil Trial encompasses a lot that’s creepy or irrelevant, from the series logo (bright orange letters for O and J) to the occasional presence of Kathy Pezdek, a Ph.D. billed as a ”memory expert” whose opinions don’t seem any more informed on the subject than yours or mine. Yet, day after day, this awkward, cheap-looking effort never buries the horror of the murders under examination; no matter what you do to them, their power to shock is inexhaustible. In its layers of irony, The O.J. Civil Trial is an enigma wrapped in cheese.