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O.J. Simpson documentary is the best thing ESPN has ever done

OJ: Made in America is a seven-hour story about LA, race, police, media, and celebrity. But it never forgets the violent crime that stitched all those topics together.

O.J. Simpson Seeks Retrial In Las Vegas Court - Day 5 Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

1. I watched all seven-plus hours of ESPN's O.J.: Made in America at once. (Its first episode debuts on June 11 at 9 p.m. ET on ABC, with the four subsequent episodes on ESPN and WatchESPN beginning June 14.) For the record: don't do this. Or do, depending on how immersed and dislocated you want to become from your own life in the process. I finished around 11:30 p.m., and then had to try to go to bed. I didn't fall asleep until 1 a.m. because I kept seeing floaty drone shots of Los Angeles in my brain. You can't watch seven hours of a sixty-year story unfold without doing a little insomniac kitchen cleaning.

2. The kitchen got real, real clean before I was done. Coming on the heels of everyone in the known legacy media universe hammering the anniversary of the O.J. verdict as a news peg, one could legit ask "Is there anything else I could possibly want to know or experience about this case, which if I am under 30 I might not really care about all that much anyway?" The answer: everything, basically, if you're the kind of maximalist willing to sit down and watch a seven-hour documentary about at least five different things. There's an LAPD documentary in here, a harrowing one about domestic violence, one about police work in general, a short but effective piece on the birth of the new American media market, an exposé on race relations and the geography of Los Angeles, a pretty robust primer on trial law and an entire segment on the changing demographics of marketing and advertising in the 1970s. When you have seven hours, you can do that, and whether you end up watching this whole thing depends a lot on how much of a glutton you happen to be for long conversations that all eventually flow together into the form of one extremely fucked up central character: Orenthal James Simpson.

3. For what it's worth, it doesn't feel like seven hours. It doesn't even feel like four. That does not mean director Ezra Edelman doesn't take advantage of those wide margins. Far from it: the long play towards the inherent distrust and hatred of the LAPD by black Los Angelenos is built into the first twenty minutes, meaning even as you're watching it you think I can't believe you're setting this up four hours ahead of time. All the big fractures in Simpson's personality and all the major forces in the murder trial itself are so well-established in the first 90 minutes that by the time they rupture completely in the third act they feel less like a documentarian's licensed opinion, and instead more like legal fact. There's no small irony in Edelman treating seven hours of space not like an open art display, but as a court brief. You're being shown exhibits.

4. That legalistic approach -- interspersed from time to time with those aforementioned True Detective-y drone shots of Los Angeles -- gives the seven hours of O.J.: Made in America a real economy. There is little fat, even though it feels like there could have been given the ocean of archival footage and interviews they obviously had to wade through to make this beast.

5. And there is so, so, so much of that footage, particularly when the trial starts and everyone has multiple cameras' worth of angles on every major character in the trial. There are simply a few moments in this that flip the hemispheres of your brain inside your skull. One of them is the sequence sewn together during the white Bronco chase when the District Attorney of Los Angeles, on camera but off-air on a local news feed, watches and narrates the chase as he views it on a studio monitor. Gil Garcetti was watching along with everyone else as the city of Los Angeles turned a slow-motion car chase of a celebrity alleged murderer into a street party. I swear you can see Garcetti's mind break a little, just ever so slightly, in that exact moment.

6. There are a few of those, actually. There is a scene where former cop and O.J. buddy Ron Shipp recalls viewing the crime scene photos in the D.A.'s office, and then deciding on the spot to testify against Simpson, and then pivoting out of nowhere towards a recollection of the first homicide he'd ever seen on duty as a police officer. There's basically every single scene with attorney Carl Douglas, a Johnnie Cochran associate who gleefully recalls rearranging the photos and paintings in Simpson's house before a jury visit to make it seem like O.J. had pictures of black friends and family in his house. (He didn't, for the most part.) There are O.J.'s childhood friends, talking about how Simpson stole his first wife from Al Cowlings in front of him, and then making him hang out with them at dinners as a third wheel. There is crusty Fred Levinson, the ad director who masterminded Simpson's commercials for Hertz in the seventies, saying "O.J. really almost had white features" with a straight face.

7. There are just some flat-out jaw-dropping moments in here, and that's without mentioning the footage of O.J. showing up to the wake of the woman whose death he was found culpable for in a civil suit. Or Zoey Tur, the traffic reporter who chased O.J. in the white Bronco from her helicopter, saying "I hope they shoot this son of a bitch and I hope they do it before our competitors get here" out loud like she just walked out of Nightcrawler.

8. Another time you might stare gape-mouthed at the screen would be if you watched a juror basically admit that to some degree the verdict of not guilty was a direct payback for the nearly complete acquittals of four LAPD officers in the Rodney King police brutality case. (The same acquittals that started the 1992 Los Angeles riots.) You might do this out of context, sure; but what Edelman and company do so well, over such a long span of time, is show how incompetently and unevenly the entire case was prosecuted. There's a juror who talks about silently begging prosecutor Christopher Darden to not have O.J. Simpson try on the glove from the murder scene. As in, watching a train wreck happen three feet from the tracks and pleading with him not to do it, and then thinking how hard Darden played himself in doing so. If you listen to the jurors who are in the documentary, you get the sense the state failed to prove their case. You also get the sense that despite that, some of them believed O.J. did it.

And in the end, the documentary does a brilliant job showing how those were two completely different things.

9. Not all of those stunning moments happen in the entertaining sense. I'm kind of wondering how this will go down if there's a substantial viewership, or what kind of warnings ESPN will put up ahead of time for viewers. The sections on Simpson's domestic violence against Nicole Brown Simpson and the murders themselves are necessary, and are presented without a scintilla of titillation or sensationalism. Nicole Brown Simpson's words are allowed to speak for themselves on screen much of the time, combined with eyewitness interviews and trial footage. Edelman presents the murders visually through the medical examiner's voice. The crime scene photos are in here, including the worst ones you can imagine being in here.

10. But for all that, they are still documents of brutal case of abuse and a horrific double murder. And if you think for a second "maybe I shouldn't watch that part," let me tell you: you probably shouldn't. I don't know if you can ever show a murder victim in the course of a documentary -- which is, at its heart, by some percentage entertainment -- and claim a 100 percent fidelity to paying the proper respect towards the victim. It completely horrified me, and that's the point. There's a huge macabre carnival built on top of all this, but after seeing them (once, and only once, and not for long) it's impossible to completely and cynically write the trial off as a glib postmodern media caper.

11. And honestly, I don't know how I feel about that after watching it. It's a call I think Edelman and company make with a real and important purpose in a lot of senses here. I think that in the course of reliving the case against Simpson, they earn a lot of credit and trust as storytellers to use them. I could just as easily agree that showing someone with their head nearly cut off as part of a story is dicey territory for anyone no matter how careful and methodical they are. If you do watch that part: it will be extremely difficult to shake.

12. That root seriousness makes the American Crime Story version of the Simpson story so much weirder and high school play-ish in retrospect. It is also odd to see Robert Shapiro played by someone other than John Travolta now even if the person playing the Simpson attorney is in fact Robert Shapiro himself. Robert Shapiro got Wally Pipp'd in the role of himself by Travolta, and it's all you can really think watching scenes of Shapiro in real court -- especially when an LAPD detective talks hilariously about refusing a hug from Shapiro after negotiating Simpson's surrender. (Travolta would have owned that scene.)

13. Also, there's a Bea Arthur/O.J. Simpson celebrity circus segment. It's like, ten seconds of footage, but it demands note here because that happened and there is proof.

14. One more random thought: there will be people who say you can't do this story enough, and they are wrong. They are wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, because a documentary like this is both the best thing ESPN's ever done, and it is also another brick in the Great Wall of Gen X nostalgia/cultural hegemony that will justifiably make everyone hate y'all as much as y'all hated Baby Boomers growing up. "You can't make enough documentaries about Woodstock!" Someone equally misguided probably wrote this in 1988, and they were wrong then, too. You get to take five hip-hop albums and two television shows and maybe a movie or two from the 1990s and then we are burning them to the ground and salting the earth and fencing it off like it's the Fukushima reactor. This documentary is brilliant and it's done and we need to do new stories about something else. (But still: completely, 100 percent brilliant.)

15. The final chapter, the post-trial life of Simpson and his subsequent trip down the drainpipe of American society and back into prison, may be the most depressing thing I've ever seen. That is an immense compliment. You have to respect a seven-hour-plus documentary willing to say that at the end of all things, after seven hours of interviews, footage and God knows how many hours of editing and sweat equity, that none of this mattered at all. None. The single thread throughout the whole documentary is violence: the violence of poverty, of racism, of the organizing principles of the city of Los Angeles and America itself, of football and ultimately the violence of O.J. Simpson's personal life. The documentary begins and ends with shots of the Nevada desert and all that nothingness. And before a sign for the Lovelock Correctional Center, some of the last words you see on screen are the bookend to the title "Made in America." They're on a sign on a moonscape with a single two-lane highway splitting it, and they read: "PRISON AREA."