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Latest retelling of O.J. saga is ESPN at its very best

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The O.J. Simpson story is well-worn territory, but ESPN tells it in a fresh, often jarring style.
The O.J. Simpson story is well-worn territory, but ESPN tells it in a fresh, often jarring style.Myung Chun

I'll admit to some early skepticism when those who received advanced screeners of ESPN's 7½-hour documentary "O.J.: Made in America" seemed to unanimously extol director Ezra Edelman's finished product as an essential masterwork.

O.J. Simpson's story — from his ascent as a football star and pitchman to his downfall and disgrace after the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman in 1994 — might be the most told and retold saga in modern media. Just a few months ago, it was the subject of an entertaining miniseries on FX. What more was there to ponder and learn?

As it turns out, more than we could have ever known — though there is a lingering, sickening feeling that we should have known, especially in regard to the systematic abuse Nicole suffered at her husband's hands.

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Edelman's series, which is being shown in five parts on ABC and ESPN (Part 4, which comes with warnings of horrific gruesomeness, airs Friday night), is not just the best "30 for 30" yet, which would be an achievement in itself. It's the best thing ESPN has ever done, in any era and across any media platform.

"Made in America" offers broad yet pointed and concise ruminations on race, culture, media, and the cult of celebrity. It bulges with jarring words and images — the Rodney King beating by Los Angeles police officers is shown over and over and over again, the brutality never desensitized.

When Nicole's desperate 911 calls and journal entries about O.J.'s rage and abuse leave the viewer wondering again why so few helped her, the answer to that comes, too — because O.J.'s charming mask and enduring fame bought him all the enablers he could ever need.

The media's complicity when his image required repair is never more evident or infuriating than during a clip from an interview with ESPN's Roy Firestone in 1992. Firestone broaches the subject of Simpson's New Year's Eve 1988 beating of Nicole that put her in the hospital.

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It is revealed in the film that it is the ninth time police had been called to the home in response to a domestic incident — and the first time Simpson had been charged. He ultimately pleaded no contest to a charge of spousal abuse. He was given two years' probation and was sentenced to 120 hours of community service, much of which was spent at a golf course organizing a celebrity tournament, the film reveals.

Firestone, who hosted the interview program "Sports Look" (later changed to "Up Close") in the '80s and '90s, was a talented interviewer during his heyday. His knack for getting guests to open up — sometimes tearfully — was parodied during a cameo in "Jerry Maguire." But there was nothing amusing about the Simpson interview. It was pure, cringe-inducing pandering. It's inexcusable in retrospect, and it should have been inexcusable at the time.

"Not to dredge it up again, but . . . talk about how things can get distorted to such a point that you are portrayed as a bad guy," Firestone says to Simpson. "New Year's Eve, you had too much to drink . . ."

Simpson cuts him off and says, "My wife and I have been together for 12 years, and when I look at it, it really wasn't that big of a fight. But because of it being New Year's Eve, because it's 3 o'clock in the morning, just finished a big party. It got a little loud."

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Firestone accelerates into full-on fawning mode, attempting to make it clear to Simpson that he's not accusing him of anything and that it's a forum to clear up any misunderstanding. He even calls him "Juice."

"Here's my point," says Firestone. "The point I'm making, Juice . . . it got to such a point that you were portrayed in the press for a while there like a wife beater."

It's as if Firestone was incredulous at the thought — or at least wanted his buddy Juice to believe he was. Twenty-two years after Nicole's death, the interview lives on as evidence of the media's shameless adulation of Simpson.

When that part of the documentary aired Tuesday, Firestone began trending on Twitter. The next day, he wrote a piece for The Huffington Post, acknowledging his embarrassment at the interview.

"To be in any way seen as lighthearted, chummy or even mildly enabling some monstrous issue like that still haunts me 22 years later," Firestone wrote. "The Simpson interview is one of the most tragic examples of how the media (including me) and the public trusted and accommodated their heroes, believing their mythology and perpetuating their deification."

He's correct, of course. But one of the truths "O.J.: Made in America'' forces us to confront is that we had more than enough evidence at the time to know Simpson's good-guy image was entirely a myth. Yet he was deified anyway.

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There's a brief, subtle image during the Firestone interview that is impossible to miss or forget now — ESPN is actually using it in its promos for the series — but probably went unnoticed then. As Firestone is asking one of his chummy, windy questions, Simpson glowers at his questioner, head tilted down, but with his eyes looking up, a smirk creasing his lips.

It is an unmistakably sinister look, but one unfamiliar 24 years ago because O.J. Simpson, the Juice, never showed us that face.

"O.J.: Made in America" doesn't need to hammer home the point. The subtlety is haunting enough. Nicole Brown Simpson, his soon-to-be-dead ex-wife, knew that face all too well.


Chad Finn can be reached at finn@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.