Television: Let’s go Bronco, as OJ Simpson goes on the run again

Review: ‘The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story’, ‘One Child’, ‘Big Dream, Small Spaces’

Malcolm-Jamal Warner in The People v OJ Simpson

Malcolm-Jamal Warner in The People v OJ Simpson

 

‘White Bronco, leather glove, Kato Kaelin”: say that to anyone who remembers 1994 and they will say “OJ Simpson”. The trial of the former American football hero turned big-name comedy actor, for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman, was screened live that summer, every day of it, and became arguably the first example of news packaged and presented as global entertainment. All the protagonists, particularly the lawyers, became stars.

Its crossover into screen drama was inevitable, and the 10-part The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (BBC Two, Monday) seems timed to feed the current bingeing obsession with real-life crime, from the Serial podcast to Making a Murderer and The Jinx documentary series. We’re a TV generation fed on CSI and its forensics-fuelled ilk. Real crime re-enactments flatter us into thinking we are all sleuths now and can work out who did it.

Not that The People v OJ Simpson raises any doubt in episode one that it thinks Simpson is the killer. It is more about setting up the trial that will dominate this series and it clearly reveals just how much evidence the prosecution had – the timeline, that glove, witnesses, blood – and they still couldn’t get a conviction. That’s the other challenge for The People v OJ Simpson in keeping momentum: we know how it ends. There’s going to be no spoilers here.

The drama starts HBO-classy by delivering gritty context, with footage of the riots in Los Angeles two years earlier following the beating of African-American Rodney King by police officers who were later exonerated. That city’s record when it comes to law enforcement and black men is laid out.

And then, like a switch that’s been flipped, everything about this drama starts to look and sound like an FX day-time soap opera. TV dramas are magnets for major stars but Cuba Gooding jnr doesn’t look like OJ Simpson, nor does he have his presence. And once John Travolta arrives, camping it up as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, all hope of taking this as anything other than a cheesy romp is compromised.

He is simply mesmerising to look at, as if his waxwork escaped from Madame Tussauds and got the part. It’s tough for David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian because no matter how old he looks, he’s still Ross from Friends.

What might make this watchable for the remaining nine hours are two characters: Sarah Paulson is strong as prosecutor Marcia Clark, who, while all her colleagues were in awe of Simpson’s celebrity, simply saw the crime; and Courtney B Vance as Johnnie Cochran. Each episode has to end on a cliffhanger and actual events gifted the first episode a terrific one: when the police come to arrest Simpson he escapes in his white Bronco, in a chase by helicopter and multiple police cars that was shown in news bulletins live around the world.

At first, One Child (Wednesday, BBC Two) seems like it might be a feel-good story about a Chinese girl adopted to Britain who, as a young adult, is reunited with her birth mother. But the three-part drama is written by Guy Hibbert, the man responsible for Blood and Oil, which explored corruption in the oil business in west Africa.

Part one of this show soon unfolds as a political drama exploring the death penalty in China. It is estimated that in China six people are executed a day and miscarriages of justice are endemic (censorship makes gathering accurate figures impossible). But One Child starts with intrigue when college student Mei (Katie Leung), who has been brought up in the English countryside by loving, academic parents (Donald Sumpter and Elizabeth Perkins), gets a message on social media.

A journalist tells her that her birth mother – with whom she has had no contact – wants to see her. Her brother, who she didn’t know existed, has been arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and will be executed in three weeks. Her mother in Guangzhou hopes her western daughter might be able to do something.

Mei tells her parents about the communication from her mother, but not the reason, and her plan to go and meet her. However the cultural disconnect when she arrives alone in China is enormous. It is made more powerful because Mei is Chinese, a casting choice that bypasses the potentially alienating trope of a westerner coming to expose abuses of human rights in a faraway land.

By the time Mei meets the underground Citizen’s Justice Movement, we are deep in political drama territory, seeing state censorship at work on every level.

Commissioned by the BBC and Sundance TV, this is a quiet drama with a loud message. It’s obviously awareness- raising work, but it never forgets that a successful drama needs a well-structured story that thrives on tension (will her brother be executed?) and top acting work.

Mid-way though the first episode of Big Dreams, Small Spaces (BBC Two, Thursday), the blindingly obvious reason strikes me why there are now so few gardening shows (a pity) while the schedules are wedged with cooking ones (also a pity).

Gardening takes so long and in TV, time is money. After two months of filming, there really isn’t much to see during the work-in-progress stage in either of the gardens featured in this accessible makeover show: the sloping one that looks impossible or the allotment that is part dumping ground, part woodland.

In cooking shows, chefs mostly just stand behind a counter – the weather doesn’t matter – and there’s all that “here’s one I made earlier” business, which isn’t how nature works in a garden.

“You can’t have the garden of your dreams but you can have a dream garden,” says presenter Monty Don with such Yoda-like authority you don’t even stop to think that’s a bit cheesy. Unlike many of his previous shows, he doesn’t get his hands dirty; he’s the don of gardening, giving instructions, dispensing approval. He doesn’t do the voiceover. He visits a bit, and advises, and four months later he returns to the two gardens to see the results.

I suspect green-fingered purists will complain about the “lifestyle” element, too much random chat and not enough Latin-named plants. The couple who own the sloping garden want to grow flowers for their wedding, the allotment woman wants to keep bees, and her family are interviewed. For the rest of us, eyeing our own swampy lawns after the wet winter and our not-so-great outdoors, Big Dreams, Small Spaces provides the right mix of motivation and inspiration.tvreview@irishtimes.com

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