Based on a True Story…

by | Oct 7, 2016 | Pop Culture, Sports

I realized there’s something not quite right when I was watching this year’s Emmy Awards and seeing Sarah Paulson win an award for playing Marcia Clark, with the real Marcia Clark as her guest.  Paulson, of course, was part of the all-star cast in the fictionalized mini-series The People vs OJ Simpson which chronicled the very-non-fiction arrest and trial of Simpson.  In that context, there’s something uncomfortable about watching those actors celebrate their awards with the people they portrayed. I watched the 10 episode series and could write a lot about its nine-Emmy-winning quality, but this isn’t a review of the show.  This is about that feeling of discomfort.

I’ve always had a fascination with (addiction to?) dramatic reenactments of true events. One of the earliest “must see TV” shows for me was the William Shatner classic Rescue: 911.  

This show had reenactments of situations in which someone had an emergency and had to call 911.  Usually the stories had a happy ending and the people who were rescued were reunited with the calm 911 operator.  I was hooked on the feeling of relief I got from these true stories where real people were in danger, but somehow managed to survive.

Flash forward a couple of years to 1994 and I was glued to the TV watching Norberg from The Naked Gun in the back of a white Ford Bronco.  Savor the juxtaposition:

Growing up near Buffalo, NY, O.J. Simpson had always been a part of my childhood either in movies or old clips of him as a running back for the Buffalo Bills. O.J. was a star, he was funny, he was personable, and the only member of the Bills to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I didn’t know about his history of domestic abuse, so when the trial was going on, it fascinated me, not because I wanted to see justice done for the victims of this crime, but because it was as if we were watching a really long episode of Matlock.  

Jump back to to the present and the premiere of the mini series The People vs O.J. Simpson.  Based on The Run of His Life: The People vs O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin, this show promised the behind the scenes stories of a trial that captivated my attention 20 years earlier, so of course it became mandatory viewing. I knew all of the characters already.  The fascination I had as a 15-year old came flooding back, and I relished it.  

What I had forgotten about–or more likely chose to put out of my mind–was that two people,  Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman, were brutally killed.  For 20 years I’ve been entertained by both the original trial and this dramatized version of this particular, real-life double murder.  It hit me like a ton of bricks.  I had never really treated my viewing, reading, or listening as if it were anything but fiction.  Until, that is, seeing Marcia and Marcia.

Now, I know the difference between reality and fiction, but I’ve been so entertained that I failed to really acknowledge that difference.  Behind every true crime story, there is a victim, the family of the victim, a suspect, and the family of the suspect.  They deserve our respect as people not just our fascination as characters in a show to entertain us. It’s this exploitation of other people’s tragedies that led to my discomfort.

In the end, I’m grateful for my unease because it helps me recall that what I’m watching or reading about are the worst moments of some folks’ lives. I’m reminded to honor and respect the dignity and worth of their life because when we only think of each other as characters and not as fellow people made in the image of God, we take away our dignity.  That’s not right.


Jason Downer, SJ   /   All posts by Jason