'The People v. O.J. Simpson' Producers on TV's True Crime Explosion

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story Key Art - P 2015
Courtesy of FX Networks

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story Key Art - P 2015

When The People v. O.J. Simpson's 14-member panel took the Television Critics Association stage Saturday to tease its forthcoming FX anthology series, the discussion ranged from an all-star cast to its view on Simpson's culpability. But what was perhaps most interesting was the producers' take on why the true crime genre seems to have exploded, and the reason this was the right time to re-examine the 20-year-old trial of O.J. Simpson. 

“People are always obsessed with true crime — and great true crime stories aren’t just about a crime, they’re about some sort of rupture in society,” executive producer Brad Simpson began. “But right now, people are interested in stories like Serial, Making a Murderer, us with O.J., [because they’re] about the ways in which the justice system may be broken or flawed. People are interested in injustice now in a way that they haven’t always been.”

The sentiment was echoed by executive producer Nina Jacobson, who added: "There are times when people want television to affirm their values and affirm their hopes, but it seems that right now in this genre people want television to explore their fears and misgivings and concerns about how things may have gotten off track."

Ryan Murphy, who joined the project as an executive producer and director once the initial scripts had already been written, acknowledged that he'd devoured all 10 episodes of Making a Murderer over the holiday break. “You watch that, and you wonder how is the judicial system so broken?” he said of the Netflix series, noting that for that very reason he's particularly excited for viewers to see a later People v. O.J. episode told from the point of view of the jury: what were they like, what were they going through and how they landed on their verdict.

It was Jacobson who fielded a follow-up about why it had taken Hollywood so long to properly dramatize one of the most recognizable stories of modern times. The veteran film producer, for whom People v. O.J is her maiden TV series, suggested that the public was oversaturated at the time. “The O.J. case was the subject of tabloid fodder to a degree that was unprecedented and still not rivaled even in the era of the Internet,” she explained, touching on a theme that was explored in a recent Hollywood Reporter cover story about the series.

“We needed time and distance to be able to come back and look at it from a character perspective, where you could really have compassion and emotional access to characters and not just react to what you think they stood for,” she said. “And I think that people are always wanting to reassure themselves — white people, in particular — that these sorts of racial earthquakes are behind us. People want to brush them under the rug but the fault lines that are exposed by them are still there. So, it takes time before people are able to raise the subject again, and right now is a time when people are able to at least converse on the subject.”

Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the book on which the series is based back in 1996, suggested he knew the O.J. saga would one day be explored. "It’s about everything that obsesses the American people: race, sex, violence, sports, Hollywood and the only eye witness is a dog," he said to laughs. "So, I knew it was going to happen."