When we look back in a few years at entertainment’s present fixation on the 1980s and ’90s, it may not be the remakes and reboots and nostalgic reimaginings we recall, but the reevaluations.
How we remember those decades — for those of us who remember them at all — isn’t likely to change as we reconnect with The Conners, get acquainted with a new Magnum P.I., or geek out with The Goldbergs. Or at least not in the way that FX’s 2016 mini-series The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story made me recall, uncomfortably, the pillorying of prosecutor Marcia Clark, or how Amazon’s new docu-series Lorena brought sobering context to the story of Lorena Bobbitt, whose severing of husband John’s penis in 1993 became comedy fodder.
Monica Lewinsky had her say last fall in A&E’s docu-series The Clinton Affair (and wrote for Vanity Fair about moving on from being “That Woman”). And, of course, thanks to Lifetime’s Surviving R. Kelly and HBO’s Leaving Neverland, fans of R. Kelly and Michael Jackson have lately been asked (though not for the first time) to consider that the music they love may have been made by predators.
For Clark, TV’s dwelling on the past has had an upside.
The former prosecutor, who’s at work on her eighth novel and whose ABC drama, The Fix, premieres on Monday, agreed that Sarah Paulson’s portrayal in The People v. O.J. helped reset the public’s image of her.
“The remarkable thing about Sarah is that we did not meet [before it was made]. I had nothing to do with that show at all. They did not consult any of us in doing it,” Clark said after an ABC news conference last month. “She’s such a genius, and how she got inside the feeling of being in the position I was in, and what it was like? I don’t know how she did it, but she did it.”
And though Clark said she couldn’t say whether the FX mini-series had helped lead to opportunities like The Fix, it’s hard to imagine it didn’t.
In The Fix, which Clark created with veteran TV writers Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain, Robin Tunney (The Mentalist) stars as Maya Travis, a former L.A. assistant district attorney who’s haunted by her failed prosecution of movie star Severen “Sevvy” Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Lost) for a double murder. She’s drawn out of self-imposed exile when Johnson becomes a suspect in the murder of his girlfriend.
“Maya isn’t me,” Clark insisted. “It’s a whole different set of circumstances.” Those circumstances, though, are just reminiscent enough of the Simpson case to lure viewers who might be interested in seeing a prosecutor’s revenge fantasy. If that’s even what this is. The two episodes I’ve seen suggest The Fix won’t simply be Marcia-Clark-gets-a-second-shot-at-O.J., but they’re also not enough to say what it will be. Maya comes across as a sympathetic figure — no surprise there — but f it’s not to be retitled The Fixation, the show’s going to need much more than the titillation of an infamous case.
At the moment, I’m still feeling reasonable doubt.
Titillation is the last thing you’ll find in Lorena, the four-part docu-series from director Joshua Rofé (Lost for Life) and executive producer Jordan Peele that reframes one of the 1990s’ biggest tabloid stories as a missed opportunity to talk about domestic violence.
It’s that opportunity that convinced the former Lorena Bobbitt — who now uses her birth name, Lorena Gallo — to cooperate after Rofé approached her, she told me at an Amazon media event last month.
“I have a lot of people asking me to do my story, but I didn’t trust .... Because everybody was most most interested in his male organ instead of the [abusive] behavior of [John Bobbitt] or domestic violence or sexual assault,” Gallo said. Born in Ecuador and raised in Venezuela, she came to the U.S. after high school. Since being found not guilty of malicious wounding on the ground of temporary insanity, she had been telling her story mostly as an advocate for those who’ve experienced abuse.
“The healing process started when I started telling my story and sharing the story with survivors, sharing the story with people who are trying to leave their husbands,” she said.
Rofé, who grew up in Manalapan, N.J., said he won Gallo over by sending her links to two previous films, Lost for Life, about juveniles serving life sentences without parole, and Swift Current, about a former NHL player coming to terms with having been sexually abused by a coach as a teenager. “I just asked her to watch them so she can see that I am coming from a place that is sensitive and delicate.”
Watching Lorena, I realized that as well as I remember the media circus surrounding her trial and that of her husband, who was acquitted of marital sexual assault, I’d forgotten a lot about the case itself.
“I was 11 years old,” Rofé said, “but I grew up with this notion that some crazed middle-aged white woman cut her husband’s penis off and threw it out the car window. ... Here’s what’s crazy. The women that I would talk to remembered it the same way.”
Instead, he said, “it was a 23-year-old kid who came here from Venezuela.”
The woman who survived the marriage and the circus feels sympathy for others who became late-night punchlines, including Lewinsky.
“We were vilified. And I feel sorry for her, from personal experience. I feel sorry for Anita Hill. I feel sorry for Tonya Harding, I feel sorry for Marcia Clark, I even feel sorry for Hillary Clinton,” she said.
One could debate how deserving, relatively, those women, and Gallo herself, are of our sympathy, but all share the experience of having been judged at times for things that had little to do with who they were, or what they’d done to find themselves in the spotlight. (There’s a reason my earliest memories of Clinton involve headbands.)
Not that it’s easy to suspend judgment based on the superficial.
Watching HBO’s Leaving Neverland didn’t change my view of the late Jackson -- I was plenty suspicious 20-some years ago, and I have the clips to prove it -- but I did find myself scrutinizing the mothers of Wade Robson and James Safechuck, the women who’d been in a sense seduced by Jackson into allowing their little boys to share his bed.
Are they contrite enough on screen? Is one a mite too polished in her anguish, the other still a little bit in denial about the role she played? These are the thoughts that threatened to distract me from the documentary’s focus: what Jackson allegedly did to their sons, and the damage it appears to have caused.
But he isn’t here, and they are. And, really, isn’t it easier to blame the mothers than to look too closely at what made so many willing to cling to the possibility that a beloved pop culture figure’s bizarre behavior with children had no sexual component?
Distraction, though, is part of what keeps us from seeing the present clearly. And in a click-driven media universe, rushing to judgment has only picked up speed.
If people are watching something resembling television in the 2040s, I’m betting they’ll still have plenty to reconsider.
The Fix. 10 p.m. Monday, ABC.