TV REVIEW: Catching Up with People vs. O.J. and House of Cards

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Make it stop: John Travolta as Robert Shapiro in The People Vs. O.J.

There’s the brave new world of television, where shows like Rectify, Better Call Saul, Les Revenants (the French series, not to be confused with Leo’s Oscar-bait film) and others are working at a level that leaves most movies in the dust.  Yet there still exists the world of formulaic TV, where it’s almost impossible to imagine that the pitches (“It’s a computer that solves crimes!” “He takes a pill, and for five minutes, he’s a genius!”) weren’t laughed out of a conference room.

Often, these two categories divide along network lines, with the big three still clinging to the old world, while smaller (mostly) cable shows are more daring.

But it doesn’t always work out that way. In what might be a cautionary tale, this season, I’ve watched two promisingly edgy cable programs slide to network pablum levels.

First, The People vs. O. J.: American Crime Story, a title so cumbersome I refuse to write it again. (Why does it need a subtitle — especially one that’s nearly identical to another current show?) I should stipulate that O. J is still in progress, though that word suggests a momentum that I’m not seeing.

Ryan Murphy, often a superbly sly Kitschmeister, should have been an ideal choice to head up the creative team, and a funkily eclectic all-star (or all-something) cast looked enticing. But Murphy and company seem to be paralyzed, trapped in a Bermuda Triangle of camp, soap opera, and a responsibility to tell the O. J. story in a straightforward way.  At this point, responsibility seems to be winning out, unfortunately. I’m guessing it’s fear of litigation rather than good taste that’s reining them in, but the result is distressingly inert, even boring.

If the star turns were terrific, that could salvage it — but what was fun in theory, in practice is… not so much. Superficial resemblances, wigs and makeup are doing most of the heavy lifting, though especially in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (a better title than an episode), Sarah Paulson is sympathetic as the beleaguered Marcia Clark. (On the other hand, what Paulson is doing here isn’t very different from previous performances I’ve seen from her.)

Anyway, Paulson is the exception. As far I can tell, David Schwimmer (as Robert Kardashian) is doing absolutely nothing. (Speaking of wigs, the best one is Evan Handler’s — he’s playing Alan Dershowitz, but he looks and acts more like Chico Marx.)  I suppose you have to hand it to John Travolta — he’s certainly doing something — but it’s creepy and not in a good way, and I wish he would stop.

It all should have been so much more gripping — and (dare I admit it?) more fun! Recently, there were a few great minutes of Connie Britton as Faye Resnick — so deliciously dishy that I hoped against hope O. J. had turned a corner.  Alas, Britton is gone now; what’s left is far more ordinary.

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Been-there, done-that: Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as Frank and Claire Underwood in House of Cards.

House of Cards has turned banal, too. Recently I likened season four to The Colbys, by which I meant a cheesy, high gloss nighttime soap opera.

But the real resemblance to that genre goes deeper, and is visible throughout in inexcusably lazy writing. More often than not, the show treats its characters like any other ultra-rich, ultra-powerful family, selectively ignoring that in and around the White House, it’s nearly impossible to do anything that isn’t scrutinized. Plots are constructed around nefarious deeds, blackmail plans and illicit hook-ups that couldn’t be kept secret for a single 24-hour news cycle. Stretching credibility for dramatic tension is a sine qua non for political thrillers, but it can’t descend to the level of ludicrousness that it hits here. (And I say that knowing that in real life, Donald Trump is on the campaign trail.)

I’m sure some audiences will continue to enjoy Frank and Claire Underwood — that is, Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright, dispensing what they do so cunningly. He’s got that cat-with-the-cream smugness that makes me want to hit him, and she (big surprise) is the Ice Queen. For me, it’s a lot of been-there, done-that — the only actual acting I’ve seen this season that really registered was Ellen Burstyn’s too-short turn as Claire’s mother.

But (spoiler alert!) if you really want to see how much House of Cards has declined, look no further than the show’s biggest icon — by which I mean, of course, Robin Wright’s haircut. For three seasons, it’s been chic, haute — an architectural marvel. Now, in what I assume is a tribute to Geraldine Ferraro, it’s grown out and softer, curling demurely at the sides.

I’m sorry to break it to you, America, but — Claire Underwood has a Hamill Wedge.

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