Critic's Notebook: Fox's 'O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession?' Exploits O.J. Exploiting Double Murder
The never-seen 2006 interview in which Simpson "hypothetically" confesses to the double slayings is hyped for a hoped-for ratings bonanza.
Much like Donald Trump, O.J. Simpson seems destined to forever haunt our nightmares. The 2016 Oscar-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America and the Emmy-winning miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, respectively, recounted and dramatized the decades-old murder case in exhaustive detail. Last year, we had to endure the spectacle of Simpson's parole hearing where he claimed that he's "basically led a conflict-free life," which is true if you don't count multiple incidents of spousal abuse, a double murder and armed robbery. Now comes yet another nail in our psyche's coffin, the documentary special O.J. Simpson: The Lost Confession? that aired Sunday night on Fox. The show aired directly opposite yet another painful reminder of something we had to endure in the past: ABC's reboot of American Idol.
The special hosted by Soledad O'Brien was largely composed of footage from an infamous 2006 interview conducted by publisher Judith Regan to publicize Simpson's book If I Did It. The book, in which Simpson hypothetically poses that he did in fact commit murders and proceeds to explain what went down, was so controversial that Rupert Murdoch, then-CEO of Fox, parent company of publisher HarperCollins, canceled both it and the accompanying special. Murdoch also issued a rare public apology, something he usually reserves for his newspapers' phone-hacking and his own racist tweets.
Watching Simpson delivering his usual smooth-talking performance in the special (why wasn't he this good an actor when he was actually acting?) will only make you hate him all the more. Fox has inevitably publicized the show as featuring his confession to the horrific crimes, coyly covering their tracks by adding a question mark. And yes, he does confess, pretty much, although he makes sure to describe it as "purely hypothetical." What's amazing is that the confession is not even the most infuriating part of the interview.
Regan begins by asking Simpson why he wrote the book, and, in one of his rare honest moments, he admits that his motivation was largely financial (it's so hard to get by on an NFL pension of $25,000 a month). He also says that writing the book was "cathartic," although it's doubtful that the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman would agree.
He recounts how he first met Nicole when he was still married to his first wife, who was pregnant at the time. He was introduced to Nicole by a friend who told her that he was "one of the good guys," a description that's pretty hard to beat when it comes to irony. Their subsequent relationship went on for seven years before Simpson finally agreed to marriage, a period he describes as being filled with "friction" over his inability to commit. He later complains that Nicole was "too attentive" to their children, which interfered with his lifestyle. And he refers to his frequent dalliances with other women with all the guilt of a man who's snuck out for a cheeseburger and fries.
Simpson complains that, after the release of the infamous 911 tape, he became "the poster boy of an abuser." He seems more genuinely hurt by the accusation of being a batterer than having committed two brutal slayings. "I read her the riot act," he innocently says about the violent encounter captured on the tape, sounding no more threatening than Ralph Kramden telling his wife Alice that she was going to the moon.
The segment involving Simpson's account of what happened on the night of June 12, 1994, fascinates on both a morbid and psychological level. He claims that he, along with a friend he identifies only as "Charlie," showed up at Nicole's house out of concern for his children.
"I'm kind of broad stroking this," Simpson says before describing the "purely hypothetical" subsequent encounter in which "Nicole fell and hurt herself" and he was confronted by a man who threatened him by adopting a "karate thing."
At one point, Simpson, delivering the best performance of his acting career by far, seems to break down, pleading, "I can't do any more of this." He soon regains his composure, adding, "I would prefer you read the book. It's not easy to discuss." It's such a blatant product plug that it makes you wonder why he didn't also throw in a blurb for Hertz.
Regan prompts him with a quote from the book in which he wrote, "I never saw so much blood in my life." He agrees with the observation but says he can't remember anything after he grabbed a knife from Charlie (who obviously came prepared for the encounter) until he saw the blood-soaked bodies on the ground.
As if aware that simply airing Simpson's self-serving account would be too exploitative even for them, Fox also included commentary by a group of panelists. The chief "get" was Christopher Darden, making a rare public appearance talking about the case. He was joined by Rita Smith, the former executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence; Eve Shakti Chen, a longtime friend of Nicole and her sister Denise; Jim Clemente, a retired FBI profiler, and Regan.
Chen is so disturbed by Simpson's self-serving account that she spends much of the time in tears, at one point describing Nicole as a "moral compass." Clemente talks about how Simpson makes the classic mistake of "overselling" his lies. Not surprisingly, it's Darden who has the most to say. Barely managing to suppress the fury he's certainly felt for nearly a quarter-century, he says, "I think he's confessed to murder" after hearing Simpson's account. He also dismisses the idea of an accomplice. "I think Charlie is O.J.," Darden declares.
When asked what Simpson will think about the special finally being aired, Darden responds, "He's gonna hate it!" Darden is definitely right about that. Simpson will hate it. Mostly because he's not getting paid for it.