By Jill Serjeant
(Reuters) - When producers began work three years ago on a new TV series about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, they took a chance on whether Americans would still care about a case that captivated the nation 20 years ago.
Turns out, the timing was right.
"The People v. O.J. Simpson," a 10-episode drama series starting on the FX network on Feb. 2, sets the 1994 arrest, year-long trial and acquittal of one of America's best-loved sporting heroes firmly in the arena of the nation's still troubled history of race relations.
The first image viewers see is TV footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
"The show is about race in America," said Scott Alexander, one of the show's executive producers. "It's about how problems between police and black Americans never really go away."
"The O.J. case has always remained of interest but it feels more ripped from the headlines now than ever," he added, referring to the deaths of more than 30 unarmed black people at the hands of U.S. police since 2014.
The series also reflects an unwavering obsession with the so-called "trial of the century" that was broadcast live on U.S. television throughout its eight-month duration.
"The O.J. case has now assumed the same status as the Kennedy assassination," said David Schmid, an English professor at the University at Buffalo, and editor of the 2015 book "Violence in American Popular Culture."
Starring Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as his attorney Robert Shapiro, and David Schwimmer as family friend Robert Kardashian, the TV series produces no new evidence about the murder of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman.
Instead, it explores the behind the scenes drama among prosecutors, police and the former football star's defense team. It is also about "the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle, the beginning of reality TV, and gender politics," said Alexander.
One episode focuses on prosecutor Marcia Clark, who was criticized for her hair style, her collapsed marriage, and for losing what initially seemed a slam-dunk conviction.
Although Simpson, now 68, was acquitted of the two murders, he is currently serving a 33-year prison term for the 2007 armed robbery in Las Vegas of what he said was his own stolen sports memorabilia.
Schmid says the Simpson case brought together "everything our culture is most fascinated by - namely sex, sports, violence, celebrity, and in this case, race."
"Add to that this widespread perception that in some sense O.J. got away with is and you have a sure fire recipe. ... It's a bit like the Jack the Ripper murders. Why? - because it's still unsolved," he said.
(This version of the story corrects title of professor David Schmid in paragraph eight)
(Reporting by Jill Serjeant; Editing by Alistair Bell)