From O.J. Simpson to Anita Hill, what’s old is new again in the world of television. And now we can add Watergate to the ranks of national scandals getting a small screen revisit.
According to Deadline, ABC is developing a high-profile miniseries based on the scandal that eventually toppled former president Richard Nixon just over 40 years ago. The show will center around White House whistleblower John Dean, whose explosive Congressional testimony detailing the president’s role in covering up the 1972 break-in of the Watergate Hotel headquarters of the Democratic National Committee helped indict Nixon in the court of public opinion.
No casting details for the ABC project have been announced, but Dean, who served as White House counsel, was previously played by Martin Sheen in a 1979 TV movie about Watergate called “Blind Ambition” as well as by “Frasier” star David Hyde Pierce in director Oliver Stone’s big screen biopic “Nixon.” The new TV series has been described as “a Faustian cautionary thriller about a man who thinks he’s getting the job of a lifetime as he walks into the Oval Office — only to discover that it’s a snake pit and he’s being set up to be the fall guy for the most powerful man in the country, if not the world.” Dean’s 2014 book, “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew And When He Knew It,” will serve as part of the source material.
This project, coupled with the two upcoming shows revisiting the divisive O.J. Simpson murder trial and another dramatizing Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment amid the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings, represent a growing trend in television to mine some of the best known controversies in recent memory for fresh drama. At first glance, the move might seem counterintuitive. Virtually everyone over the age of 30 is aware of the result of O.J. Simpson’s trial, or how Clarence Thomas’ confirmation panned out, so in theory these films should lack a certain thrill. But that conclusion ignores the fact that these three events were among the first bonafide TV phenomenons, and so it is only natural that they should generate considerable interest in the medium that made them iconic.
One could argue that the Watergate hearings were the first reality TV hit, as millions of Americans were riveted by the Nixon administration’s public unraveling. Viewers were able to catch a glimpse of a truly fractured White House, full of enemies and hidden agendas, all secretly bugged by a president perceived as increasingly paranoid.
In fact, Pew Research has shown that Nixon’s support, which had been solid (he won the presidency in 1972 in a landslide, after all), only began to seriously erode once the Watergate hearings were televised in the spring of 1973. A stunning 73 percent of Americans surveyed by Gallup at the time said that they tuned in to watch the hearings live, with 21 percent saying they watched at least 10 hours.
In 1991, Anita Hill’s testimony regarding her time working under Clarence Thomas at the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission similarly riveted the nation. Hill was infamously grilled by an all-male panel of senators who were largely skeptical of her charges that Thomas had routinely acted inappropriately toward her in the workplace. Although Thomas would be confirmed to the Supreme Court by the narrowest of margins, the feeling that Hill had been railroaded has persisted.
Time has been kinder to Hill and her legacy, and in HBO’s upcoming film, “Confirmation,” about her moment in the national spotlight, she will be played by “Scandal” star Kerry Washington. The actress recently told Variety she was “terrified” to portray Hill. “I wish that I had the level of elegance and grace that I think Anita did. I just keep trying to learn to live a public life and still have some private space,” Washington said.
And then there’s O.J. Simpson and his so-called “trial of the century.” Twenty years after his controversial acquittal for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, the former NFL star’s story is getting an elaborate retelling on the first season of producer Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” series for FX. Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta and David Schwimmer are among the recognizable faces on board for this deep probe into the case, which provoked national debates about race and celebrity.
Millions of Americans followed every twist and turn of the Simpson trial in the mid-’90s, but producers are banking on prevailing interest in behind the scenes details that have never been seen before. And if early reviews are to be believed, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” will provide audiences with the kind of sophisticated take on the drama that only 20/20 hindsight can provide. This series, which comes in the wake of popular true-crime shows like “Serial,” “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx,” will likely also draw audiences intrigued by the legal and criminal machinations involved. And, if a scripted drama is not a viewer’s cup of tea, ESPN’s acclaimed “30 for 30” documentary series has its own take on the trial coming out, too.
The Guardian called that show, which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival, “captivating and binge-worthy” and predicted that “love it or hate it, O.J. Simpson is going to get everyone talking again.” Just like the movies, where hit ’70s franchises like “Star Wars,” “Mad Max” and “Rocky” are all the rage again, television has gotten into the nostalgia business. Similarly, business appears to be booming.