Paul Casserly watched too much TV as a child.

TV Review: Bingeing on reality

Cuba Gooding Jr. (above) as O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story: The People V.  OJ Simpson.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (above) as O.J. Simpson in American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson.

Yes I know, TV is not real life, I'm not a complete idiot. We all know this but still some shows seem to have the flavour, the smell, the je ne sais quoi of authenticity.

I find myself looking for it, and finding it, possibly where it doesn't exist, like faces in the clouds.

Shortland Street doesn't resemble any hospital I've ever been into, with its lack of grime or institutional carpet, and thank the Christ that my friends, enemies, and recent exes don't materialise on the cobbles the way they do on Coronation Street, at exactly the wrong moment.

But both shows have an essence of real life, of relationships and existential pain, but it's at an almost-homeopathic level.

The soap opera has a structure that must be obeyed, a rhythm that rhymes with itself more than life, but still, the moments that come closest to our own experience of the world are the ones we cry during.

Mostly though, we are just waiting for the baddie to get the shite kicked out of them.

If you watch Coronation Street, you do so because you can't wait for Peter Barlow to pay for his heartless vodka-soaked tom-catting. And I'm sure you'd agree that once we laid our eyes on Game of Thrones bad boy Joffrey Baratheon, we knew he was dead, and we couldn't wait to watch him die in agony. In the real world we may not cast actual cabbages or sharpened stones, but the social media flagellation applied to the Mediaworks CEO Mark Weldon in recent weeks suggests we probably would, if proximity allowed.

Being authentic is thought to be the domain of documentaries and the best dramas. But even the most engaging and 'real' experiences, such as those in Making A Murderer and American Crime Story: The People V. OJ Simpson come with baggage and complications. Both of these remarkable programmes have kept me engrossed with their promise of authenticity, but mostly by their masterful delivery.

If you only watch two shows this year, here they are.

Making A Murderer is a 10-part doco series that chronicles the stranger-than-fiction case of American Steven Avery - a convicted murderer, whose story reveals a lot about the way the wheels of justice turn and how juries and audiences are manipulated. It's a critique on a discredited police force hell bent on conviction, and it will have you fuming with anger and indignation.

If you haven't seen it, at least take yourself to YouTube where Netflix have loaded an official version of episode one, now clocking in at some two million views.

Did Steven Avery kill photographer Teresa Halbach? At first blush you might, like me, think not. Weeks later, it seems less certain. Pondering how I had been manipulated, I considered the way the series made me feel towards the victim's brother.

Somehow he comes across as a black-hat, in with the crooked cops, stupid. I almost wanted to throw a cabbage at him. Meanwhile, I felt warmth for Avery and his family. There was an alarm going off somewhere, it just took a long time for me to hear it.

Somehow, American Crime Story: The People V. OJ, (currently showing on Prime) seems more authentic even though it's a glossy dramatic re-production, helmed in part by Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for shows such as Glee, Nip/Tuck and American Horror Story.

It could have been a disaster, after all Ross from Friends is in it (David Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian) and so is John Travolta but, spoiler alert: both are very good, especially Travolta's wig and brows.

The casting of Cuba Gooding Jnr as OJ seemed a misstep at first, but by the end of proceedings, I was won over. After all, the story, based on Jeffrey Toobin's best seller, is about the trial, and OJ, who doesn't take the stand, plays like a living ghost. There are other actors who look more like 'the Juice', but Cuba somehow takes us into the barren soul of Orenthal.

But it's Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran who do the theatrical killing here. But I was paying attention for the 10 enthralling episodes, and justice seems elusive.

Not surprisingly, the real Marcia Clark found the show hard to watch, but in the many interviews she's given recently, attests to its bona fides. She's still coy about hints that her and co-counsel Chris Darden got as romantic as the series suggested, and has a list of moments that either didn't happen (prosecutor Bill Hodgman didn't collapse in dramatic style in the courtroom) or were omitted, but the 'vibe' of thing gets her seal of approval.

The back catalogue of writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander helps explain why the series is so very good.

The screenwriting team got started when they convinced Tim Burton to direct their script for Ed Wood, before delivering The People Vs Larry Flynt, and the Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon. Their trick, it seems, is to always put a good story before the truth, but only just.

*American Crime Story: the People V. OJ Simpson (Prime, Tuesdays 8.30)
Making a Murderer (Netflix)

- NZ Herald

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