Movies · TV

The Real, Obvious Primary Difference Between the Two O.J. Simpson Miniseries

Doc or drama? Get you a man who can do both.
By  · Published on June 22nd, 2016

At least a few articles have been written now comparing this year’s two miniseries focused on the murder trail of O.J. Simpson. The most recent is James Poniewozik’s New York Times celebration of the pair as complimentary and equally necessary. Earlier this month, Vulture’s Brian Moylan contrasted FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson and ESPN’s O.J.: Made in America with focus on just their content. And way back in January, Vanity Fair’s Valentina Valentini wrote about how there’s room for both. I agree with them all, but there’s something glaringly missing from each article and that’s the statement of the obvious: one is a documentary, the other drama.

Does the obvious need to be pointed out? It’s not like any of them keep this distinction a secret, even while doing their best to recommend the doc version to viewers who might be scared of the form (as a character on this week’s Veep describes them, they’re “those movies for people who like to be sad”). I appreciate when critics attempt to sell people on nonfiction films and miniseries by making the case that they’re just films and miniseries, with potential to be as accessible and even as entertaining as “regular” movies and shows. Many filmmakers who blur lines between fiction and nonfiction surely prefer the inclusionary consideration. In the past, so have I.

But if there’s anything that these two O.J. miniseries did for me, they reminded me that doc and drama are very separate animals. Not that I don’t regularly come back to believing this when championing the “doc option” of a particular story or subject tackled in a new fiction film. Typically, though, I mean to recommend the one over the other. Man on Wire instead of The Walk. The Paradise Lost trilogy instead of The Devil’s Knot. Tracking Down Maggie instead of The Iron Lady. Even when the dramatic take is pretty good, as in the case of Milk, I still push for the doc, here The Times of Harvey Milk, as the better film to see if there’s only room for one.

With The People v. O.J. and O.J.: Made in America, however, it’s impossible for me to choose one over the other as the better work. Even though I’m prone to prefer the doc version, I can’t dismiss the brilliant performances and storytelling of the FX show. And maybe it’s just because it aired second, the doc did sometimes feel like a supplement to the drama, providing more context and facts for what was primarily an entertainment depicting the characters and events. And yet The People v. O.J. also played like a supplement to what we saw in real-time, providing more context and facts, especially in terms of fleshing out the real-life characters.

Frankly, I don’t think they need or warrant comparison at all, no more than they should be compared to a straight compilation of CNN coverage from 1995. They’re independently triumphs of their respective modes of film (or TV, whatever) and storytelling. The dramatic miniseries deserves its own recognition for how it mixes comedy and tragedy, character study and thematic focus, performance and replication, and a perfect balance of zoning in on the smaller, more personal moments and then zooming back out for the big picture. O.J.: Made in America is likewise an exceptional example of its brand of documentary with its own achievements in performative interviews and a combination of always pertinent archival material and relevant and revelatory commentary.

Comparing the two miniseries (one of them a piece of the American Crime Story anthology series, the other an installment of the 30 for 30 series) is like comparing The People v. O.J. showrunner Ryan Murphy or co-creators Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander to O.J.: Made in America director Ezra Edelman. Especially with focus on their sexuality or race, which indeed may be pertinent when critically exploring the form and tone of each program on its own, as well as certain noteworthy factors in their success, such as in the way Carl E. Douglas gives a crucial, one of a kind interview that he likely only would have provided an African-American filmmaker (hear Edelman discuss this matter on the Pure Nonfiction podcast).

There are other doc and drama counterparts that are similarly not really a pair and are to be appreciated quite separately. One set is Nick Broomfield’s duo of docs Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer and Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and Patty Jenkins’s Monster, which won Charlize Theron an Oscar. Just as 2016 has double duty with O.J. miniseries, 2003 saw the release of the second Broomfield feature and the fictionalized version. Unlike the O.J. set, however, the Wuornos films don’t quite overlap in terms of story or thematic interests. Meanwhile, Werner Herzog’s own set, the doc Little Dieter Needs to Fly and drama Rescue Dawn are different ways of looking at and presenting the same man’s story through extremely different, incomparable forms.

This year has another interesting set of films that were understandably compared when both debuted at Sundance in January: Robert Greene’s doc Kate Plays Christine and Antonio Campos’s drama Christine. They both focus on the suicidal death of TV news reporter Christine Chubbuck in 1974, but that’s really where any comparison should end. While I haven’t seen the latter, it is clearly more straightforward as a character piece centered on the performance by Rebecca Hall as Chubbuck. Greene also includes the elements of performance and portrayal in his unique feature, which follows real-life actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she prepares to play the part of Chubbuck, and through her research we get documentary material on her life.

Kate Plays Christine, which many describe as blurring lines, manages to be exclusively essential in the cinematic treatment of the Chubbuck story by sort of covering all ground at once. That doesn’t make Christine worthless, but it does render it kind of redundant, even if it probably shouldn’t be judged next to Greene’s film. Kate Plays Christine is also not quite the answer to the divide of doc and drama, as some sort of evolution of film. You couldn’t do what Greene does with his subject with every true story. Not just because it’s a very specific idea that isn’t merely a foundational framework, but because there should never be that much uniformity in genre or mode, let alone film overall.

Theres is no one way to tell a story, or so it’s often said, but the truth is there is one suitable way to tell very specific stories, or specific versions of stories (either as a book, a movie, a painting, etc.). The difference between the two O.J. series and, as another example, the doc and drama set of Dogtown and Z Boys and The Lords of Dogtown is that the latter is a total rehash of the story from the former, just in dramatized fashion. It’s not really a new way of looking at the story or the history or the characters, it’s just a performed copy. The same is true of many dramatized remakes of docs and other movies depicting the exact story in different formats. Straight, faithful adaptation is almost always useless.

It is definitely interesting that we got two amazing miniseries this year based around the O.J. trial. It’s fascinating that they could very well be respectively the best works of their kind this year. Both are highly recommended, whether you see them close together or not. Can they compliment each other? Definitely. Is it worth keeping track of what content is in one but not the other? Sure, though not as a way of thinking either one got this thing right or that thing wrong. It’s not important to think too much on the difference in content or approach to the story. Each is extraordinary in their own right, and it’s just great fortune that both exist, individually.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.