State versus Oscar Pistorius: A new breed of reality TV

2014-03-02 14:00

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The Oscar Pistorius trial is like a new breed of reality TV, one with uncanny parallels to the OJ Simpson? trial, write Natasha Joseph and Charl Blignaut.

Plug the words ‘OJ Simpson Bronco’ into Google and the first result is for a video on YouTube.

Today, that’s unremarkable. In 1994, though, YouTube did not exist and the notion of a viral video – or tweet, meme or Facebook post – belonged in science fiction.

Back then, the idea of sitting in front of your TV set avidly watching a bulky white SUV driving at the speed limit on a busy American highway would probably have struck most people as faintly ridiculous.

But watch they did, in their millions, as OJ “The Juice” Simpson, an American football star, began his inexorable fall from grace in the back of a Ford Bronco and then in a packed courtroom, beamed live to the nation.

The moment that Bronco hit the freeway, trailed by a news helicopter, TV in America changed for good.

The “trial of the century” marked the rise of reality TV and the death of daytime soapies. Reality became more interesting than fiction.

There’s a reason crime and courtroom dramas are so common on our TV screens and it’s about the stakes: life and death, incarceration and freedom.

Now South Africa has its own reality courtroom drama and the parallels between OJ and Oscar are easy to find.

Two sportsmen and national treasures who had risen against the odds (Simpson was born poor and wore braces on his legs until he was five; Pistorius was well off, but disabled).

Two beautiful blonde women. Spatters of blood.

The gritty new reality TV drama retains elements of its soap predecessor: we are addicted to watching people who are richer than us, more beautiful than us and with bigger problems than us.

In pop culture, Oscar was already carefully mythologised. “Half man, half machine,” is the opening line of one of the dozens of new documentaries.

The million-dollar man, champion of the underdog, the human who raced the Arabian stallion in Qatar.

Watching the mythological figure fall from grace is a compelling narrative with ancient storytelling roots.

It’s the human quality of the godlike hero that creates the necessary dramatic tension.

Oscar’s tension between strength and vulnerability defined his image, and it’s probably no accident he chose to pray in court during his bail hearing.

The picture was beamed across the globe: the beast as martyr, as complex, and misunderstood. Simpson was similarly coached by his PR team.

In OJ and in Oscar, there is the hero who is also the victim (of circumstance). But they are heroes who are also villains – the heroine is dead. Beauty and the Beast without the happy ending.

We will all have our own verdicts, of course. We collectively own our national treasures and so we are all entitled to judge them.

OJ’s case said it and so does Oscar’s: you’re the judge – not the judge.

But the judge – the patriarch in the soap – will have the last word. Millions will be glued to the moment Oscar’s verdict is read. In 1995, after an eight-month trial, an estimated 150 million people tuned in to see Simpson found not guilty of murder.

There will be a support cast, of course. People made famous by association.

OJ hit the freeway after spending the night at his friend Robert Kardashian’s house.

Enter the Kardashians.

Who can forget his showboating lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, goading the prosecution into asking his client to put on those infamous gloves – which didn’t fit Simpson’s hands?

The gloves – one found at the scene and the other outside OJ’s home – formed part of the evidence against the athlete.

Cochran’s comment to the jury? “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Will we watch spellbound as a showy defence lawyer asks his client to remove the prosthetic legs he wears so the world can see just how vulnerable he is on his stumps?

A beautiful woman left bloodied, broken and, in many ways, forgotten in the shadow of the man behind the gun or knife. Just like in the movies.

OJ Simpson was acquitted but today he’s serving a prison sentence for armed robbery. Oscar Pistorius will, one imagines, be hoping the similarities end as soon as the judge reads her verdict.

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