American Crime Story · James Baldwin · ID's New Look

Plus "Leo In The White City" and two from the New Yorker.

Much of the country started “reopening” in the last few days. What this means and how it’s going to turn out, I can’t say. I CAN say that, with your editrices still keeping it close to home in NYC and SF, we’ll also be keeping Best Evidence free this week. And we’ll be keeping the True Crime A To Z project free no matter what, so if you haven’t checked that out yet, here’s where to start!

And if you’d like to support the newsletter and The Blotter Presents, and you can swing it in these deeply scary economic times, we’d so appreciate a paid subscription. It’s just five bucks a month, and it lets us pay contributors (not to mention rent crappish vintage true-crime miniserieseses on Amazon).

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Thanks so much for reading! Let’s get to it. — SDB


ID has a new logo. NewscastStudio takes a deep dive into true-crime net’s new look, seen above, including which font was selected and why, and what the colorway and angling are hoping to inspire in/imply for viewers.

[T]he angled element is essentially a mirror image of the sharp line created by the old logo’s tilted footprint.

It also could be symbolic for any number of concepts — a violet slash or cut, the different angles, perspectives or “upward climb” of an investigation or a way to draw the eye into the logo or the path to solving a mystery.

Or a trenchcoat color pulled up around a face, like the old Neighborhood Watch signs used to have.

ID’s also going with a new tagline: “Don’t just watch, witness.” I personally am not crazy about the “punctuation narrative” here — I’d have gone with a semicolon — but the reference to “how true crime programming can draw viewers in and encourage them to become part of chasing down answers” is a smart one for a network that used to own the genre space, but now has to work that much harder to distinguish itself from competitors like Oxygen and Netflix. — SDB


With Ryan Murphy back in the TV headlines with Hollywood — and with True Crime A To Z taking particular note of American Crime Story — it seems like a good time to unearth my Previously.TV coverage of The People v. OJ Simpson. Here’s my New Show Fact Sheet from four-odd years ago.

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What is this thing?

As you may have heard, OJ Simpson -- Heisman Trophy winner; legendary NFL running back; ubiquitous commercial pitchman; actor in the Naked Gun films -- was accused of and went on trial for murdering his ex-wife Nicole Brown and a second victim, Ronald Goldman, in June of 1994.

American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson is the story of, well, that story -- not just what happened but how it became the focal point of an entire culture for over a year.

When is it on?

Tuesdays at 10 PM on FX.

Why now?

The twentieth anniversary of the verdict in Simpson's criminal trial came and went last October. That milestone, plus the steady progress of serial storytelling about crime away from the figurative trash heap and (back) into salons and New Yorkers, makes it as good a time as any to take a run at The Trial Of The Century.

What's its pedigree?

American Crime Story generally is of course the brainchild of Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens). Each season will address a different crime; this first season specifically had no shortage of source material to choose from, but went with legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin's The Run Of His Life, and Toobin is a consultant on this project.

(Not consulted: the families of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, an understandable production decision that just as understandably ruffled a few feathers.)

You probably didn't hear much about the casting of American Crime Story. Buncha no-names, really.

...Hee! Seriously, though: highlights include Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, Billy Magnussen as Kato Kaelin, Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, Malcolm-Jamal Warner as AC Cowlings, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian (and Selma Blair as Kris), Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro.

And that's just from the premiere. I checked to see who's playing Fred Goldman, because the man is a serious bad-ass who handled what befell his family with warrior fortitude, in my opinion. ...Joseph "Johnny Boy Soprano" Siravo. I wouldn't have thought of him in a gazillion years and he's perfect.

...And?

I tried, in the lead-up to American Crime Story, not to get too psyched for it, for a number of reasons. I had a nagging feeling that the casting that created so much anticipation around the series would make the series itself rather anticlimactic, especially for those of us who lived with this case, willingly or not (and after a while, it was very much "not"), for that very strange 16 months.

I also wondered, pursuant to that, who the series is aiming for with its storytelling. What's the demographic here -- fans of the true-crime genre who miss all the based-on miniseries we used to get during May sweeps? folks around my age who would reunite with that time in their lives, not nostalgically but from a place of experience with the case? American Horror Story fans/younger fans of Murphy's recent work, born too late to remember the case firsthand but on Murphy's wavelength narratively?

And what if the diminishing-returns problem I have with Murphy's recent output -- a problem more than a few viewers share, and the returns have started to diminish more rapidly with each successive AHS season -- isn't solved by his having to show some fidelity to real-life events? Would showing respect for the victims and the facts in evidence handcuff Murphy and his writers to a stylistic beige sombriety that's totally off-brand?

I've only watched the first episode; any and all of that shit could let the air leak out of the proceedings as we go along. I also have no idea what it's like not to have lived with this case and everyone in it, no matter how insignificant, for months and months, or to look at it strictly as a crime story and not as a capital-C Comment On Our Culture Of Celebrity, so it might land differently for a 24-year-old.

...But?

You want the big hits, you got to take the big cuts, and with the caveats above etc. and so on, this is a home run for Murphy. Yes, there is some winky-wink shit with the Kardashians. Yes, I can point to a couple of physical-aptitude nitpicks with the casting. Overall, it's very very good, and it's even better when you think about how risky it is -- to go with this case, that we all knew so intimately, that was documented releeeeehhhntlessly, that is a fucking hissing snake knot of racial tension and class issues and societal dysfunction in dealing with domestic violence, coated in a layer of sports-celebrity fire ants. AND: we know the ending! That is a titanium set on Ryan Murphy to take the Simpson case on, and he opens with Rodney King and the riots, just a shot across that bow right away.

And then to do this stunt-casting that is really great, and the actors nail the details. You always got the sense Robert Kardashian was one stiff breeze across the trashcans from throwing up when he was on-camera; Schwimmer does exactly that. Connie Britton is wearing a shit-ton of dated-even-for-the-time makeup and not moving the lower two-thirds of her face to talk; that's the Faye Resnick I remember.

Cuba Gooding Jr. is a little small for my taste as OJ Simpson, a guy who is intimidating and bigger than the room even on a screen, but he's still inhabiting Simpson perfectly, the narcissism even in Simpson's stance, the willingness to take up all the space and air in the room. In his first scene, Gooding lets that friendly glad-handy light go out of Simpson's eyes, and his face goes cold. It gets right at Simpson and men like him, what happens when your attention to them is eclipsed by something or someone else.

I'm liking Paulson and Steven Pasquale as Mark Fuhrman a lot so far too, and Vance is great, not too big, but the most fun I had watching the premiere was John Travolta's scenes, because Travolta is having a goddamn blast, people. I will grant that a good 40 percent of it could be those eyebrow merkins they pasted on his face? I don't care! I don't recall Shapiro very well, but I know the type -- distractedly slimy; cufflinks that cost more than my whole family -- and J. Trav is killing it, with precise, princess-y blocking that works perfectly.

It's not perfect. It's not subtle, either. I will tell you right now I don't think The Fuhrman Business is going to be a good time. But it's so, so watchable, even just for the production design's flawless eye for the mid-nineties: the cheap-looking suits, the boxy cars, all that unflattering olive green everywhere.

...So?

In for ten. — SDB, 2/2/16


Trying to get my magazine backlog under control led me to a New Yorker piece from last year about bystanders becoming “first responders” during mass-casualty events. Paige Williams’s article from the April 1, 2019 issue (…I know; that wasn’t the oldest one, either) discusses various mass shootings and stabbings in detail, including Columbine and the Las Vegas attack, so it may be an upsetting read for some of you, and “Turning Bystanders Into First Responders” starts out with a Frontline-esque grimness:

For victims whose injuries are serious but survivable, rapid treatment is essential. A person can bleed to death in as little as five to eight minutes. Traditionally, during an active-shooter event, paramedics held back until law enforcement secured the area, then rushed in to treat the wounded and evacuate them to hospitals. That approach changed after Columbine. During that event, rescuers, unable to determine if the killers were dead or hiding, didn’t reach some victims for hours.

A former Surgeon General is quoted comparing “the injuries we’re seeing in the civilian world” to “combat casualties,” thanks to the heavy firepower that’s often involved.

But there is hope, in the form of a father-son team that trains educators in Stop The Bleed protocols (the son is 9 years old), and in anecdotes from…well, the front lines of some of these attacks, that top their massive clouds with a gossamer silver lining of human fortitude and generosity. Not an easy read, or strictly speaking a true-crime one, but worthwhile. — SDB


I’ve had it on my list for weeks to write about James Baldwin’s The Evidence Of Things Not Seen. Past Blotter guest Dr. Marcia Chatelain emailed me last month to recommend that I read it as a companion to the Missing & Murdered series on HBO, which just wrapped up last night (I haven’t watched the final episode yet), and I tracked down a copy on Scribd and tore through it — and I highly recommend it if you can put hands to it, but I just could not seem to put my arms around telling you why. I highlighted more of the text than not; I couldn’t get out from under a bunch of predictable searing-indictment clichés; Baldwin’s words do everything mine would never be able to in describing them. So, “Baldwin/Evidence” sat on my to-do list.

Then Sarah Weinman’s The Crime Lady newsletter hit my inbox a few minutes ago. I’ll get to some of the other contents in a future installment, but I was grabbed by this:

Casey Cep wrote about James Baldwin’s Evidence of Things Not Seenhis 1985 book-length essay on the Atlanta Child Murders, which grew out of an assignment for Playboy by Walter Lowe, the only black editor ever at the publication. I had read Baldwin’s book last month thinking I might want to write about it, and Cep’s piece hit all the notes I would have wanted to hit, and then some.

This Sarah wasn’t consciously thinking that if she waited long enough, Casey Cep would cross this item off for her, but…she’s not mad about it, either.

My writing is a different animal from Cep’s and Weinman’s — they’re reporters; I’m just a guy, standing in front of a re-enactment, asking it to take that wig off — so it’s not so much that Cep hits the notes I wanted to; it’s that she hits the notes I want, period. It’s everything you hope for when you crack a New Yorker Annals Of Crime and see that you’ve got 18 delicious pages ahead of you: fights between Baldwin and his editor, Walter Lowe; the way Baldwin thinks about patterns in Evidence, both specific and general; a phrasing momentarily suggesting that local residents were going to sic tiny winged mammals on suspects (“citizen crime-watchers patrolled neighborhoods, sometimes armed with bats”).

And then there’s this:

If you want to believe that equal opportunity has arrived for black Americans, you will be inclined to regard black mayors and black police chiefs and celebrated black novelists as the rule and black murder victims as the exception; Baldwin understood that something closer to the opposite was true. The “evidence” in his book’s title is not just forensic but epistemological: it refers not only to what gets collected by police and presented at trial but also to what we want to believe and how far we will go to sustain those convictions, whether they are about the existence of the New South or the guilt of Wayne Williams.

I can’t say enough good things about The Evidence Of Things Not Seen, or for that matter about Casey Cep. Please read all of these things; you may feel existentially nauseated, but you will not regret spending the time. — SDB


Hey, remember how Leonardo DiCaprio had a Devil In The White City project on the go at Hulu? I didn’t either, and don’t ask how I arrived via wiki-hole at this Looper piece on why DiCaprio doesn’t have any big projects dropping this year — which, strangely given the March 11 dateline, doesn’t seem to think COVID-19 merits mentioning as a factor — but based on the article’s list of DiCaprio’s current films and series, doesn’t it look as though he’s positioned to become the official leading man of true-crime docudramae? Once Upon A Time last year; Devil In The White City maybe someday; Wolf Of Wall Street; Killers Of The Flower Moon; we could maybe count The Black Hand here…is he coming for Sarsgaard? — SDB


Tuesday on Best Evidence: What Waco gets wrong, pandemic crime coverage, and there’s always more Tiger King.


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