[mild spoilers to multiple shows ahead]
There’s a quiet moment toward the end of the ten-episode The People v. OJ Simpson when Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, having almost hooked up and then become bitter enemies over each others’ mistakes, shake hands. The camera lingers for a moment on the sight of the hands themselves, one white and one black, clasped—an image that then forms a silent contrast with rancorous scenes of the similarly multiracial defense team in a state of contemptuous dissolution. In the end, Johnny Cochrane watches Robert Shapiro badmouth him on television, as removed from his trial partner as Clark and Darden were connected. It’s a smart complication of the show’s racial politics, as those explicitly fighting racial injustice are mired in disharmony while the two district attorneys tough out a comity the defense has been positing as institutionally impossible.
It’s also notable because it’s the type of understated moment not seen in the other shows that bejewel the contemporary golden age of television. The People v. OJ Simpson is better than its shiny rivals, and set against them its realism emerges as its operative quality—all the more impressive as the series chronicles events ubiquitously described at the time as “surreal.”
Surreal is a good description of any sampling of recent television or television-adjacent fictions—House of Cards, Sherlock, Daredevil, to take a few. For shorthand, let’s call this Netflix Style: aesthetically sophisticated, elaborately plotted, slickly produced, and ridiculous. All three begin as enthralling serials; all are soon slipping over plot twists and character reversals to the point of slapstick. The shows differ in subject matter and tone, but they crack along the same fault: each eventually, if not repeatedly, sacrifices the logic of its protagonist to the desires of the metastasizing plot.
Daredevil is the most ludicrous. The first season features multiple instances in which the show seems to forget Matthew Murdock is blind, until a late episode reveals he’s not actually blind, but sees according to some sort of sonar something-or-another. The character’s limitation, that which gave him both his urge for justice and his more interesting death drive, turns out to have been a ruse. He can see! This recalls, and fails, Aristotle’s plausible-possible rule, which isn’t just academic: that rule keeps narratives honest. The decreasingly-believable plot demands undermine the characters, but the characters’ lack of integrity allow the plot to run away with them.
Sherlock had even more trouble (though admittedly more fun) maintaining the continuity of its protagonist: the detective’s supposed anti-socialism, originally posited as the Hyde to his Jekyll-ish hyper-observational prowess, is in every instance discarded to make room for uncharacteristic abilities necessitated by the over-complicated mysteries. Lo and behold, it turns out for the purposes of one episode that the anti-social hero maintains a large army of observers spread across England with whom he seems quite social. He (actually they) can see! Is this possible? Technically, I guess. Plausible? Not from what we’ve seen of the character so far.
Except that in the end Sherlock seems capable of just about anything. So does Matt Murdock, so does Frank Underwood (granted omnivision via NSA surveillance, naturally). Presented with blind characters, these shows opt to magically bestow to their characters sight rather than watch them feel their way on their own.
The players in The People v. OJ Simpson can’t see, either, at least not until it’s too late. In fact the series is, on its basic level, a continual problem of not-seeing, as the two sides compete to present select information to a dozen sequestered people court-ordered to cover their eyes and ears. In the most important turn, Judge Ito denies them the ability to see all but one line of the Fuhrman tapes. At one point Ito himself rejects reading a transcript to maintain his impartiality.
But the limitations, rather than presenting the characters with obstacles they avoid via author-granted superpowers, inspire them: Johnny Cochrane’s best moments involve cleverly implying to the jury evidence or context they’re prohibited from viewing. Acting on his wits is what Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is supposedly celebrated for in his series, except that it’s always a deus ex machina, rather than a smart play, up his sleeve.
It could be argued that this is a categorical error: superpowers were invoked the last graph, and the three Netflix Style shows here are all essentially superhero shows—or, as in House of Cards, a supervillain show. Engorgement is what puts the super in superhero, and Sherlock’s box of tricks or Daredevil’s blacklight sight or Frank Underwood’s endless reserve of tactical cynicism could all be seen as the larger-than-life powers of people interesting precisely because they are not beholden to ordinary limitations.
But they should be beholden to their own limitations: the old science fiction rule—you can have life on other planets, but nobody should be able to suddenly shoot lasers halfway through the story—seems to apply here. In other words, no magic sonar sight in episode eight. To take a more earthly example, Underwood is clearly a Nixonian character, but Nixon became his most interesting at the limits of his machinations. For all he was a crook, he was not terribly versed in criminality, and his naively asking an aide how to launder a million dollars is, in retrospect, an unexpectedly pathetic moment; he sounds like a Quaker kid from Whittier trying to play mobster, rather than the mobster himself. Frank Underwood would just order it done, and probably have a guy to do it, and burner phone to call him with in his lapel pocket. The vaulting of human limits makes a character less, not more, interesting.
It’s obviously easy to ascribe OJ‘s realism to the fact that it is based off real events, and surely the over-covered happenings of the Simpson trial constrained a number of narrative decisions (though the show, like all others, takes plenty of dramatic license). But as anybody who’s ever watched a clichéd biopic or Oscar-bait reenactment of Great Moments in History knows, the historical record is no guarantor of realism. In fact, the whole “inspired by a true story” tag seems to cause—allow?—producers to jam their tales into formulas. This is what Walk Hard satirized: the interchangeability of pop icons’ unique lives once rendered by the biopic machine. In the clash between between existence and archetype, what Iris Murdoch calls the comfort of form wins. These narratives based off real people fail precisely because don’t treat those people as real.
The People v. OJ Simpson succeeds because it grants its characters the integrity of their own existence, perfectly encapsulated when Marcia Clark recalls an assault that originally spurred her quest for justice. What Clark had been imagining is what would have actually transpired in any other show: that the experience had given her a sort of sixth sense of the jurors’ minds, the better to craft the perfect closing argument. She can see! OJ plays it the opposite way, this experience blinding her the whole time to what the jury was actually thinking.
In short, she succumbed to, rather than transcended, her limitations. That’s the opposite of a superpower. But it should be noted that Sherlock Holmes and Matt Murdock and Frank Underwood are capable of everything except that handshake.