The Power and Challenge of Dramatic Irony: The People Vs OJ Simpson
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.
Send Bunnies, Chicks, and Money
My daughter received an Easter present from my sister the other day–the movie Hop. First off, this was a very nice gift and my daughter (who is two) thoroughly enjoyed the bunnies and chicks and action sequences. My wife and I, however, having now seen the movie twice now in as many days, have been left with a rather confounding question: Who on Earth thought this movie was a good idea?
Hop occupies that weird non-space between so-called ‘children’s movies’ and those intended for adults. It is visually and thematically geared towards kids (or so they tell themselves) but includes enough ‘adult’ comedy to keep parents from wanting to kill themselves every time they see the movie. The problem with this, however, is two fold:
- Children don’t need their movies to be stupid for them to enjoy them or to find them worthwhile. A good children’s movie is a good movie, full stop. I need only gesture vaguely in the direction of Pixar Studios to prove my point.
- Adults do not enjoy being pandered to. They enjoy it even less than children, believe it or not.
So, you know, when we adults watch a grown man trying to become the Easter Bunny (yes, you read that right), we do not find it amusing. It is disturbingly bizarre.
In brief, the movie is about a perpetually unemployed young man who, through serendipity, meets the runaway son of the Easter Bunny, EB, who has come to Hollywood to become a drummer. However, while the Easter Bunny frets over the disappearance of his son, Carlos, the chief chick in the Easter Bunny’s workshop, stages a coup to overthrow the Easter Bunny, only to be thwarted by EB and the young man, who has now realized his lifelong dream is to actually be the Easter Bunny. In the end, both EB and Fred (the guy) become co-Easter Bunnies and Fred finally earns the respect of his overbearing father (which is, perhaps, the weirdest scene in a movie I’ve seen in a long time).
If I’m giving the movie far, far more credit than it deserves, we can maybe see it as a postmodern deconstruction of the holiday movie. It is, beat for beat, the basic plot of dozen Christmas movies, except applied to a holiday that enjoys nowhere near the same popular support, interest, or mythology. Thus separated from our childhood nostalgia, the movie seems crass, empty, and downright weird, even though it’s the same story as the ‘heartwarming’ Santa Clause or Elf.
In order to make it ‘palatable’ to adults, it features the comic stylings of Russel Brand as the voice of EB. While I have nothing against Russel Brand, most of the time I find myself asking the question ‘when did Russel Brand become a thing?’ while the CGI bunny talks like the Artful Dodger. (I have concluded, by the way, the Russel Brand became a thing because somebody saw him walking down the road and said “Is that Captain Jack Sparrow?”, and the rest, as they say, is history.) The movie isn’t funny, mostly because it’s trying so hard to be, and because Russel Brand seems to be the only person trying to tell jokes; the movie is, for some bizarre reason, a Russel Brand vehicle. And this is presumably a long time after everybody realized he isn’t really Captain Jack Sparrow.
In the end, though, the real reason why Hop exists is because of money. It began, as most evil things do, in the head of some marketing specialist at a major movie studio. The question was asked ‘why aren’t there any kids movies about Easter?’ and the answer was ‘because everybody else thought it was a stupid idea.’ Millions of dollars in sales, however, is never stupid, and so the producers went to their rolodex to find a bunch of people not proud enough to turn down the money they would be offered to write a ridiculous movie about an easter bunny coming to America.
Perhaps I hear you sneering at those writers (and actors, and director) who dared to make Hop, but shame on you. These people are trying to make a living, so leave them alone. I was in a screenwriting class once, wherein we were asked to explain to the professor (himself a well-respected screenwriter) what movies we had seen over the past week. In this class I was surrounded by film snobs who went out of their way to point out the edgy, fancy, artistically challenging films they’d seen. Me, I typically watched whatever happened to be on basic cable when I was sitting in front of the TV, and one week I had watched Anaconda. When I told my professor this, I could hear the skin tightening on my classmate’s faces as they sneered. My professor, though, said this: “I know the guy who wrote Anaconda. He’s a good friend of mine.”
“Really?” I figured he was putting me on, or that I was about to lose a lot of respect for the man right then and there.
My professor then told me a story, and it went like this: Once you get a certain number of successful movies made in Hollywood as a writer, your name goes in a rolodex (or now, I suppose, smartphone) on a producer’s desk. When they want a movie made based off their marketing data, they call somebody in that rolodex. So, when the news that a giant snake picture was due came to a certain producer’s desk, they called the professor’s friend (call him ‘Bob’) on a Friday afternoon.
Producer: “Hey, Bob, I need a giant snake picture!”
Bob: “Errr…I don’t have any giant snake…”
Producer: “We’ll pay you $25,000.”
Bob: “Giant Snake picture, coming right up!”
By Monday morning, Anaconda was sitting on the producer’s desk. Bob bought a boat.
BTW, Hop made 38.1 million dollars on its opening weekend. Just sayin’.