It’s show and tell time. Here are some things that have been on my DVR recently. Feel free to tell me yours.
Any given Wednesday: The HBO television return of Bill Simmons, the merrily tendentious proprietor of “The Ringer” website (and formerly “Grantland”) was splendidly meaty and full of in-your-face opinion.
Guest star Ben Affleck – a man who’s as shameless a Boston partisan as the show’s proprietor (“Whitey Bulger couldn’t make it,” he cracked) – blasted the whole Tom Brady “deflategate” controversy with an eloquent string of obscenities so shameless it would have been enough to fill whole episodes of Bill Maher’s “Real Time.” Along the way, Affleck observed, in mid-rant, “If (they) really knew how to test for steroids, there’d be no (@$#%) NFL.”
While Simmons wittily declared LeBron James “our captain if aliens ever show up and challenge us to a game of basketball,” his guest Charles Barkley refused to admit LeBron into his personal all-time NBA Top Five. (He declared Michael Jordan, Oscar Robertson, Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar immutable.)
The most defensible opinion of the entire half-hour was Simmons’ declaration in passing about ESPN’s seven-and-a-half-hour, five-night documentary “O.J.: Made in America” – that ESPN had produced a documentary that “helped Caucasians finally understand the O.J. verdict” in 1995.
I wouldn’t dream of arguing. A full portrait of the ghastly racial history of law enforcement in Los Angeles was the most consequential feature of Ezra Edelman’s marathon documentary. For those who put stock in such things, it makes the epic a leading contender for Best Documentary at next year’s Oscars.
It was a remarkable piece of television – a seven-and-a-half-hour TV novel about a life begun conning people in the projects, carried on through a unique kind of American triumph and fame (almost as beloved as a pitchman, sports analyst and junk movie actor as he was a running back), and ending in the current general obloquy and humiliation.
As American lives go, that’s one even Frank Norris and Theodore Dreiser might have had trouble imagining.
But it’s the very fullness of the piece that gave me pause. Its monumental strength over its five-night length is also its weakness. The piece is such a full portrait of gruesome race relations in Los Angeles that it was hard to escape the idea that some of this was used as filler.
A full portrait of the subject would be anything BUT filler, but when I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that Edelman, with all his repetitions, was almost using it that way.
At the same time, no attempt was made to answer some of the large, nettlesome questions remaining from 21 years ago.
For instance, just before the murders, Simpson made a TV pilot called “The Frogmen,” in which he played the leader of an A-Teamish freelance band of ex-Navy SEALs. It was scuttled and hidden away forever after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman.
O.J. played an ex-SEAL whose major weapons expertise was with knives. He was said to have been coached in the art of military blade assault by former SEALs used as stuntmen.
Nothing of this was mentioned in the trial. No one has ever shown the entire pilot anywhere that we know of. It was, according to internet sources, permanently stashed in the Warner Studio vault “out of respect” for the victims.
To which any objective journalistic veteran would respond “hooey.” It’s more likely that it’s one film studio’s attempt not to “needlessly” soil a branch of the Armed Forces with accidental involvement in the most notorious American crime of the late 20th century. Who knows what pressure was applied to do just that. It can’t help looking as if the fix was in to hide it and keep it out of the trial, too, however convincing it might have been.
It’s not as if primary sources to information about it don’t abound. “The Frogmen” was directed by Robert Singer, who later became the executive producer of “Supernatural.” It was written by Carol Mendelsohn of “CSI.”
A full examination of the matter is only one of many that an enterprising documentary might well have explored for the sake of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Simmons is right, though. Edelman’s epic explained to White America the grievous racial background of the Simpson trial better than anything else.
Why Simmons was on my DVR in the first place: When it first ran, I was watching “American Gothic” to see what happens when a dysfunctional family that may contain a serial killer gets even more dysfunctional when Big Mama (Virginia Madsen) knocks off Big Daddy (Jamey Sheridan) while he’s in the hospital trying to recover from a heart attack.
It’s “Dallas” and “Dynasty” meet “Revenge” and “The Killing.” So far, it’s not so hot. But I have faith in it. As long as my DVR refuses to drop a second of Simmons on HBO, I’m happy to check it out for a bit longer.
“Aquarius”: One of the major surprises from the last round of new network programming was the sneaky but absolutely ineluctable steady improvement of this series, in which David Duchovny is a beefy L.A. cop who is ever-so-gradually about to have a rendezvous with the Tate-LaBianca murders by Charles Manson and his family. We watched as the interplay of cops, big shots and Manson family got ever more baroque. If you stayed with it, your patience was rewarded with the realization that it had become a pretty good TV show – far better than the second season of “True Detective” on HBO.
Future occupiers of space on my DVR: Who was it at ABC that decided the way to combat the summertime hegemony of NBC’s terrific “America’s Got Talent” and CBS’ “Big Brother” in the reality TV racket was to revive old game shows on Sunday nights?
Due especially to Alec Baldwin, the 21st-century Gene Rayburn in a revival of “The Match Game,” it is one of the guiltiest pleasures in the history of American daytime television.
If that isn’t enough, Steve Harvey will take “Family Feud” into prime time with the weekly celebrity version. And, yes, ABC’s good-cheer personality dispenser Michael Strahan will host “$100,000 Pyramid,” while Anthony Anderson continues to bring back “To Tell the Truth” with (gulp) nonagenarian Betty White.
Somewhere in the great beyond, Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly are rejoicing – and having one heck of a rowdy last laugh on all those denizens of higher show business who so long ago decided they didn’t belong.