From the beginning, one of the biggest strengths of The People v. O.J. Simpson has been its ability to humanize larger than life figures. No one from the ensemble has gotten off scot-free, with characters being portrayed as hypocritical, vindictive and attention-seeking, in turn, but the show has succeeded by helping us to understand why these people act as they do. Showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have wrung tension out of well-known events by engaging us with the people involved in them, even if those people often seem despicable.
By contrast, the titular characters of “A Jury in Jail” just aren’t that interesting, and it makes for the season’s weakest episode to date. Not that the flaws necessarily have anything to do with the people themselves, who surely lead rich and fascinating lives, but the manner in which they’re depicted emphasizes broad caricaturization over empathy. Unlike the in-depth looks the show provides at the private and public lives of Johnnie Cochran, Marcia Clark, et al., “A Jury in Jail” is content to give fleeting glimpses of the jurors who decide O.J.’s fate. In addition to producing boring drama, the flash characterization leads to uncomfortable stereotyping which undermines the series’ otherwise laudable attempts at exploring the role of race relations in the O.J. case.
From the opening scene of the teaser, “A Jury in Jail” doesn’t seem to have much interest in saying much about the jurors beyond the obvious. Of course, 124 days into the trial, they’ve had it with being sequestered. Of course they’re excited by the initial prospect of getting paid by the government to stay in a hotel while they adjudicate at a celebrity trial. The jurors make side comments about their upcoming task, but even these, such as the man excited to get away from his wife or another man who just wants to watch TV, are firmly banal.
The banality turns into heavy-handed stereotyping in the first act, in which the jurors fight over what to watch on TV, a crucial question due to the media deprivation they endure. The black jurors want to watch Martin, whereas the white jurors want to watch Seinfeld. Regardless of whether or not events really happened this way, the scene plays as a too obvious attempt to divide jurors along racial lines. We already know plenty about the racial split in opinions during the O.J. trial, and seeing it embodied through an argument over TV doesn’t add much.
Meanwhile, the evidence given to the jury serves to considerably lessen the tension within the courtroom. Gil insists that the jurors won’t care about DNA, and, sure enough, the forensic scientist’s cross-examination doesn’t have nearly the excitement of O.J. trying on the glove or Johnnie talking about drug executions. The discussion over DNA also fails for showing a bias in favor of O.J.’s guilt: even if we’re less than engaged by the prosecution, Barry Scheck’s attempts to discredit the integrity of the evidence feel especially flimsy and unconvincing.
Robert Kardashian certainly isn’t swayed by the idea that the DNA might be misleading, and his dilemma over the culpability of “Uncle Juice” (I’m going to keep coming back to that as much as I can) makes for the episode’s strongest storyline. O.J. catches on to Robert’s doubt, and their jail visit confrontation is one of the few compelling moments in an episode generally lacking in intrigue.
Much less interesting are the dismissals of jurors. Despite the clever move to score their exits to the tune of “Another One Bites the Dust”, playing jurors’ histories of domestic violence and undue interest in others’ conjugal visits for laughs sits even poorer than the Seinfeld/Martin scene. Overall, the show’s treatment of the jurors feels more like an obligatory crossing off on a checklist than a compelling or necessary addition to our understanding of the O.J. trial. Johnnie, Marcia and John Travolta’s eyebrows have been more than enough to keep the show engaging thus far, and the decision to suddenly give so much attention to the jurors is an unfortunate misstep in an otherwise very strong season.
The last act does redeem “A Jury in Jail” a bit, with the episode’s focus shifting to the defense fretting over the possibility of a mistrial. O.J.’s creepy smile during the mock cross-examination pushes the show’s bias in the same direction as the DNA evidence, but the complexity of Cuba Gooding’s performance keeps the scene from condemning his character too much. We’re genuinely not sure if we’re watching a psychopath or someone who’s just doing what he thinks is best for him, as misguided as that thought might be.
The excitement of the pending cross-examination in the final two episodes is matched by a call to the “O.J. tip line” in the tag. There’s going to be more about Mark Fuhrman’s racism in the final two episodes, suggesting, in conjunction with O.J. being on the stand, strong material for the end of the season. Even if the focus on the jurors in “A Jury in Jail” misfires, there’s more than enough territory left to explore as The People v. O.J. Simpson comes to a close.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.