I did not watch FX’s The People Vs OJ Simpson willingly. It isn’t a show that I’d ever really want to watch. I don’t particularly enjoy true crime dramas or courtroom dramas, and I certainly didn’t enjoy watching the Simpson trial in real, actual life. My wife, though, was very excited about it and so on the television it went, and I watched.
At first I was overcome with a feeling of nostalgia – seeing the mid 1990s again, rendered in full detail. Seeing dramatizations of things I remembered seeing on the evening news, seeing car styles I hadn’t seen in decades (Kardashian’s BMW! Ah! I remember seeing those all over!), and so on. That was fun. I didn’t think I’d actually come to be interested in the story, though. I mean, hey, I already know what’s going to happen, right? In a sense, it reminded me of watching another thing I experienced in the 90s – the first two seasons of Game of Thrones in the form of the first two books. The primary difference there was that I greatly enjoyed GRRM’s work and I was not enamored of the ins and outs of a trail I remembered as being annoying, omnipresent, and ultimately disheartening.
And yet I watched anyway. When we got to the last episode, I found myself breathlessly engaged. Even knowing what would happen, I was on the edge of my seat awaiting that verdict. Not because I didn’t know, but because I actually knew and the characters didn’t.
This is called “dramatic irony” and The People Vs OJ Simpson is a masterclass in this particular storytelling technique.
You see a lot of books, movies, and TV shows try to pull this off. Among the speculative fiction, thriller, or adventure genres, it most commonly takes the form of a “flash forward” to begin the story – some moment of great dramatic import we do not yet understand – and then cuts back with the whole “5 Days Earlier” thing. We then watch as the characters go through those five days, getting closer and closer to the climax we know is coming. Ideally, the plan is for that flash forward to serve as a catalyst for tension and suspense – the audience fears the coming explosion, yet knows it is inevitable.
And yet, so very often, it does not work. The trope itself seems somewhat tedious. We roll our eyes and refuse to allow the prologue affect us, knowing, perhaps cynically, that the author has some nasty trick up their sleeve and we refuse to fall victim to it. This is the peril of dramatic irony – it can backfire, and badly. Honestly, that was exactly what I was expecting from The People Vs OJ Simpson – another take on a tired old story, already beaten well to death by literally everybody who was involved in it (except Judge Ito). I was enormously pleased to find that I was wrong.
We all know what is going to happen at the very end of this series. Everybody should know – it’s arguably the most sensational court case in history. Why watch it again? Granted, there is a substantial population under the age of 30 for whom this might be a new tale, but even they probably know the climax. What’s more, since this is a “true” story, it would more-or-less have to adhere to what really happened, so no cheats, no Tarantino-esque rewrites of history.
And yet it all worked. It worked perfectly. The dramatic irony set up by the creators of this show was simply masterful.
But How Did They Do It?
The answer to this isn’t terribly mystical or even complex. The thing that The People Vs OJ Simpson nailed – that it nailed from the very first episode and in ever episode following – was character. The show took a heartbreaking, arduous, and tragic story and told it as a human tale, not some mythic warning or didactic screed. It was true to the people on the screen, it portrayed them with sympathy, and the actors embodied the characters with conviction. We cared about everybody in that show, even the people we disliked. We wanted to see how the permutations of inexorable fate would affect them personally. Part of this is because, though we all knew the plot, not all of us understood the characters – the people – involved in it. As we came to admire Marcia Clark or sympathize with Judge Ito or understand Johnny Cochran, we wanted to know how what we already knew would affect them. We understood what was coming and what this might mean for them, but we were unsure how they would react to it and, even more, we cared about them.
This, then, I would argue is the central trick to effectively utilizing dramatic irony – you have to build sympathy for your characters, you need to keep the audience invested in their struggles, and the rest will take care of itself. The People Vs OJ Simpson did this better than any other based-on-a-true-story drama I can think of, and much credit must be given to the actors, directors, and writers of that show. It might sound easy to do, but it is certainly not.