In FX’s anthology crime drama, American Crime Story, the first story follows the murder trial of athlete-celebrity O. J. Simpson. Titled The People vs. O. J. Simpson, the first season of the mini-series brings the Simpson trial vividly to life, with outstanding performances from Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O. J. Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as attorney Johnnie Cochran, and John Travolta as attorney Robert Shapiro. The mini-series immerses the viewer in the 90s, and many viewers feel they are watching their memories.
Apart from the cosmetic appeal—costumes, cinematography, etc.—American Crime Story also brings up important psychological themes that we will be exploring here in this blog. First among them is the psychology of fame and celebrity.
Fame is a theme that runs throughout the show: Cochran and Shapiro were famous attorneys in the public eye, Simpson’s best friend Robert Kardashian (played by David Schwimmer) and his family were thrust in the national spotlight and have never left it, and, of course, Simpson’s case was so high-profile partially because he was a professional football player. The Simpson case brought about the rise of the celebrity trial and court TV, turning the famous into reality TV stars. It has begged the question ever since: Why do we find celebrity trials and reality TV so compelling? Turns out there’s a psychology behind our fascination.
One reason why we might be drawn to stories about celebrities is how the story is spun. In a recent episode of ACS, Simpson is shown in the media. The Time Magazine ran his mug shot in a darkened lighting with the words “American Tragedy” underneath. That same, Newsweek Magazine was sold right next to Time. The Newsweek cover ran the undoctored image and “Trail of Blood” beneath Simpson’s mug shot. Time’s cover sparked outrage at the time because people accused the magazine of making Simpson’s skin color darker, therefore making some people view him as a villain because of negative connotations with darker-skinned African Americans. By this point, Simpson’s “Dream Team” of all-star lawyers were working on moving the conversation from being less about Simpson’s alleged crime, the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and more about the accusation being a set-up by a racist L.A.P.D.
Whichever is true, the legal team helped spinned the story from Simpson being a murderer to Simpson being a victim. As soon as the Simpson team got control of the narrative, they could work the angle on the story to their liking. For the people watching the trial worldwide in the nineties and for viewers today, the Simpson trial became against epic forces and themes large and small, timeless and timely: good vs. evil, black vs. white, the famous vs. haters, truth vs. fiction. By having a narrative structure about which to frame the events, people could process the horrific events in a more easily digestible—and, for many, entertaining—format. When we had a more human, three-dimensional look at Simpson’s case, it allowed many people to identify with him for prejudice endured, speculation and hassling, and victimhood.
Reality TV also began to emerge at this time, and the viewer can quickly see the cult of the reality TV star creep up in the third episode of ACH. In the opening scene, Robert Kardashian and his children go out to eat on Father’s Day. Met with long lines to be seated, Kardashian goes to the maitre’d to see what can be done. They recognize him and seat him and his children, who are clearly enjoying the perks, straight away. Now reality TV stars, the Kardashians represent another form of identification. If people worldwide are fascinated by the rich and famous, reality TV has given a glimpse into these celebrities’ lives. Reality TV following a format similar to Keeping up with the Kardashians, is a slice-of-life program, cameras recording whatever happens on a normal Kardashian day, whether mundane or not. So many people love this format because, as with Simpson above, we are able to identify with them. The reality TV stars often do the same things as everyone else; seeing people you admire, or at least are fascinated with observing from afar, is an escapism from some people’s depression-laced daily struggle with existence along with a reminder that “they’re just like us,” as one celebrity magazine boasts. Reality TV is a way to zone out and destress, relieving anxiety and, when comparing yourself against the stars on screen, judge your life for better or worse against celebrities.
American Crime Story: The People vs. O. J. Simpson is a fascinating mini-series that brings up psychological questions, among them, why people follow celebrity court cases and why we love reality TV. This season promises to raise more psychology topics soon to come.