Is it possible to stage an intervention on a network? Fox had been doing so well, you guys. After American Idol premiered in 2002 and gave them a much-needed blockbuster, the network began to shed its tacky, tawdry shock-TV past, and started building its schedule around scripted programming and reality TV competitions like So You Think You Can Dance and Hell’s Kitchen.
But then ABC stole Idol out of their trash heap, and something in Fox snapped. Panicked, angry, and desperate for something to premiere against this unholy Idol, Fox found something taped to the inside of their toilet tank — an emergency stash so old, they may have even forgotten they ever had it in the first place.
Yes, O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession is the programming equivalent of finding your meth-addict buddy on the floor of his apartment, face-down in a puddle of his own sick.
Judith Regan’s “no-hold-barred” interview with O.J. Simpson — who was acquitted of the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman in 1995, but found liable in their wrongful deaths two years later — was conducted for Fox in 2006. It was supposed to coincide with a book, If I Did It, which detailed Simpson’s hypothetical account of how Goldman and the mother of his children were butchered. To give you an idea of how intense the backlash was after Fox announced the O.J. interview, Bill O’Reilly — yes, Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly — called the special “indefensible and a low point in American culture.”
A moment of silence please, for 2006, when Bill O’Reilly was a voice of reason and we still had no idea how very low our culture, and our country, could sink.
Having been burned (rightfully so) once before with the O.J. mess, this time around Fox tried to present this special — a repugnant exploitation of the murder of two people — as a teachable moment. A significant portion of The Lost Confession was given over to a panel led by host Soledad O’Brien (oh, girl), who interviewed people including former O.J. prosecutor Christopher Darden, Nicole’s friend Eve Shakti Chen, Regan, and Rita Smith, a former exec at the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.
So every time Simpson, in the 2006 interview, dismissed and explained away specific instances of domestic violence — like the time he smashed the windshield of Nicole’s car with a baseball bat in 1984, or the time the police found a bloody Nicole hiding in the bushes after a fight with O.J., or the infamous 911 call where a terrified Nicole tells the dispatcher “he’s going to beat the sh— out of me” — The Lost Confession cut back to the panel, where O’Brien and her experts would tut-tut and shake their heads at Simpson’s lies, misdirections, and manipulations.
Giving domestic violence expert Rita Smith the opportunity to discuss the dynamics of an abusive relationship — “Subtle and not-so-subtle forms of violence are used [by abusers] to keep control over their victim,” she said of the 1984 baseball bat incident — is time well spent, but that’s one sound bite. Over the course of this two-hour special, though, we heard a lot more from O.J. Simpson, who had plenty to say about his murdered ex-wife — most of it unflattering. All the anti-domestic violence PSAs in the world won’t change this fact: The Fox network gave O.J. Simpson a platform to paint Nicole Brown as a “confrontational” woman who instigated drama with him and “had been in her share of fights”; as a drug user who slept around and hosted sex parties; as a woman who wore an “inappropriate” outfit to her daughter’s dance recital.
Are we really expected to believe that Fox had absolutely nothing better to air against Idol? A bonus episode of 9-1-1, perhaps? Outtakes of Seth MacFarlane forgetting his lines on The Orville? A random assortment of cutting-room floor footage from Beat Shazam? Anything?
You’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything yet about that “lost confession.” Well, much like Geraldo Rivera’s anticlimactic live opening of Al Capone’s vault, there wasn’t much there there. Though Simpson continually referred to it as “hypothetical,” a better word would be “incoherent.” Speaking in halting sentence fragments, Simpson — who was prompted frequently by Regan with phrases like, “In the book you write …” — Simpson said that he went to Nicole’s house, got into a “verbal” altercation with Goldman, and when Nicole told him to leave, Simpson (hypothetically) remembered grabbing a (hypothetical) knife … and that’s it. “I do remember that portion, taking the knife from Charlie. And to be honest, after that, I don’t remember,” he mumbled. “Except I’m standing there and there’s all kinds of stuff around.” What kind of stuff, Regan wanted to know. “Blood, and stuff around,” he replied. “I hate to say it, but this is hypothetical.”
Did I mention that Simpson’s hypothetical confession involved the creation of a fictional friend named Charlie? Jesus, I need more wine.
O’Brien and her panel reviewed Simpson’s meandering statement two more times — two hours is a lot of time to fill, folks! — and then, perhaps because Simpson didn’t get graphic enough, O’Brien went on to read a very detailed description of Nicole and Ron’s violent deaths. The rest of The Lost Confession was a rehash of everything you probably already know about Simpson’s marriage and the murder trial — subjects that were far more competently covered by ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America and even The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
By the end of the two hours, the only questions you’ll have are these: Why did I spend any of my brief time on this earth listening to a wife-beater offer a hypothetical explanation of how he would have murdered the mother of his children while those children were sleeping upstairs? Also, now that Fox is off the human decency wagon, what can we expect next from the network? Perhaps George Zimmerman would like a few hours in primetime to discuss his thoughts on community policing? Maybe Casey Anthony would like to be a guest judge on MasterChef Junior? Or how about you let the 303-pound tumor from your old Guinness World Records series fill in for Sean Combs when The Four returns this summer?
Or, if there is a TV God, The Lost Confession will tank in the ratings, and Fox will wake up Monday morning groggy, embarrassed, and determined to do better, one day at a time.