Who wants to think about them again? Who needs to hear one more word about either Bernie Madoff or O.J. Simpson, symbols of our national dishonor and dysfunction? Yet they're back, vying for extra rounds of national attention as television replays our long national nightmares this month: "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," beginning Feb. 2 on FX, and "Madoff," Feb. 3 and 4 on ABC.
Why dredge these memories? And why now? Are we a nation of masochistic viewers eager for retreads of our collective low points? Or do American financial turmoils and race relations never resolve, demanding dramatists return to these characters to confront our present?
Even if you were sick of the coverage at the time, both O.J. Simpson and Bernard Madoff biographies offer worthy takeaways. Both projects present a coherent overview of the recent past. Both the FX and ABC films examine the public's infatuation with celebrity and wealth. Both expose flaws in the legal/financial systems that let certain people get away with outrageous behavior, even murder, and point to the forces within a personality that lead certain narcissists to believe they are above the law. Both are oddly topical.
Ryan Murphy's take on O.J.
The O.J. Simpson 10-episode FX series rehashes the 20-year-old case with help and juicy details from Jeffrey Toobin's phenomenal book, "The Run of His Life."
The casting is terrific: John Travolta is hilarious as grandstanding Robert Shapiro, Cuba Gooding Jr. is a smallish presence standing in for O.J., Sarah Paulson is intense as Marcia Clark, David Schwimmer plays a panicked Robert Kardashian with a white streak in his hair, Courtney B. Vance is slick as Johnnie Cochran, and so on.
Directed and executive produced by Ryan Murphy, best known for fare that's lighter ("Glee") and spookier ("American Horror Story"), this "American Crime Story" goes inside the legal teams and the Simpson confidants, using the timely backdrop of race relations to tell a story you may think you already know. There are numerous surprises, including how riveting the tale is in this telling.
The O.J. story opens with footage of the Rodney King riots. Cut to two years later and Simpson (Gooding Jr.) emerges from his home with golf clubs and a travel bag. He says he overslept, "I hope we can still make the flight!" He recalls the first celebrity he ever met, Willie Mays. "That's what I want to be."
Meanwhile the camera explores the grisly crime scene and Clark (Paulson) says what everyone is thinking: "Brentwood? Nobody gets killed in Brentwood." She doesn't recognize O.J.'s name until she's reminded that he's a movie star, the Juice, the commercials.
From there, it's on to the white Bronco chase, played slowly, with vantage points from the highway, inside the car with a suicidal O.J., and on every TV set.
Tiny details reveal the outsize role celebrity played: Judge Lance Ito was so flattered by his high public profile in the case, he granted Vanity Fair writer Dominick Dunne (played by Robert Morse) a prime seat for the duration of the trial. At the same time, Ito proudly showed Dunne a fan letter he received from Arsenio Hall.
The docudrama lets the audience review the evidence while stressing, as Johnny Cochran says, that it's not about the evidence, it's about telling a better story than the opposing side. Toobin's book makes Simpson's guilt explicit; the miniseries doesn't. Viewers will bring their own conclusions.
Mostly, it cements the idea that race remains the country's most deeply divisive issue.
Richard Dreyfuss as Madoff
ABC's "Madoff," starring Richard Dreyfuss as Bernie Madoff and Blythe Danner as his wife, Ruth, goes inside the mind and family dynamics of the man who perpetrated the biggest financial con in history. The story chronicles his rise as an investment advisor and his fall and the disintegration of his family. The movie, directed by Raymond De Felitta, is inspired by ABC News Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross' book "The Madoff Chronicles." Ross appears in news clips within the film.
Dreyfuss is sensational as Madoff, a twinkle in his eye as he explains his "magic." He's a likable scoundrel at first, playing with his grandkids, reassuring his wife. The depths of his lying, his chutzpah, is almost beyond belief.
"Millions? For schleppers. You gotta go for billions," advises early investor Carl Shapiro (played by Charles Grodin).
The history of the man and the scam is charted. "From a backroom in my father-in-law's office to chairman of the NASDAQ," Madoff (Dreyfuss) says in voiceover narration.
The Ponzi scheme builds and builds. Madoff shows no remorse.
"You could call it cheating if you want," Madoff says, "but are you really doing anything wrong if the Peter you are robbing to pay Paul is you?"
With the film "The Big Short" winning raves and award nominations, and with HBO's Madoff movie "The Wizard of Lies" in the works (starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer), there's never been a better time to be angry at Wall Street, the system and the One Percent. And television's not about to miss the opportunity.