Viewers of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story will fall into one of three categories: those who remember all the details of the trial, those who don’t know anything at all, and those who (like me) remember enough to be delighted by the references and cameos, but have forgotten enough that the bizarre truths become freshly frustrating. But it’s exactly this story’s bizarre nature that makes Ryan Murphy’s ambitions new anthology series refreshingly not like a Ryan Murphy series at all. It is, perhaps surprisingly, understated and played straight (almost), being based off of Jeffrey Toobin’s nonfiction book The Run of His Life. The facts speak for themselves, and this circus-like tale needs no amplification.
The series’ 10-episode arc (5 of which were available for review) is told in a linear fashion, starting in 1994 with the discovery of the bodies of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. It was a brutal double murder, with the evidence leading obviously and abundantly in O.J. Simpson’s direction. But as is often the case with celebrities, things began spiraling out of control almost immediately, with the trial essentially being conducted to the public nightly through Larry King Live.
American Crime Story follows all of this with great detail, and includes a dizzying number of characters. Sarah Paulson is exceptional as the dogged prosecutor Marcia Clark, and is a perfect foil for Courtney B. Vance’s career-fated role as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran. David Schwimmer also puts in a compelling and believably befuddled performance as Simpson’s best friend Robert Kardashian (although the show overplays its hand a little with Kardashian’s family, including an unnecessary fictional lecture he gives to his young daughters about the dangers of fame).
A parade of actors in smaller roles add additional delights (like Billy Magnussen as Kato Kaelin, Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey), although there are two glaring missteps. One is Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson himself, with Gooding never varying from being dialed up to 11 in every scene. On the opposite end of that energy though is John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro, whose character is well-written and, in many respects, finely portrayed — save for Travolta’s overplaying Shapiro’s halting way of speech, his face molded into a mask beyond parody, and fully into the absurd.
Speaking of parody, there are a few winking moments included in the series that work through a knowing hindsight, like Judge Ito’s (Kenneth Choi) preoccupation with celebrity, and a cutaway to Mark Fuhrman’s (Steve Pasquale) collection of Nazi memorabilia after he denying being a racist. But the show also takes some things very seriously, even diving deep into the racial debate that was not only an active question in Simpson’s life before the murder, but of course in the way Cochran used (and abused) it for the trial. Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden is excellent as a man caught in between Cochran’s baiting — some of which does resonate with him — and Clark’s insistence that it’s a non-issue, and it’s one of the ways the series creates newly compelling aspects in an old and otherwise well-trod story.
American Crime Story also does great work in making its retelling of the case nearly as engrossing and frustrating as the original, but in a compact way. Each episode attempts to hold itself to one major event: the murders, Simpson’s breakdown, the white Bronco chase, setting up the trial, etc. And with its rich, almost sepia-styled visual tones, a cleverly picked 90s soundtrack, and impeccable costuming, the series feels like time-traveling. But with a case so strange, so sprawling, and so intimidatingly grandiose, American Crime Story is also forced to juggle many things at once. And yet, it manages to feel intimate, and make at least a few of its major characters truly feel like the real people they are, and not just caricatures.
There are quips (“Did OJ have time to do this?” “Well, he is fast”), winks, and references coming from all sides, but none of it ever feels even remotely campy or over-the-top (aside from, as mentioned, some of the Kardashian Kids scenes). And though there are some missteps, the show is never better than when it examines things behind-the-scenes, like the backroom bickering among Simpson’s so-called “Dream Team” of defense attorneys, and Clark’s dismay over how the focus groups perceive her.
It has been over 20 years since Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman’s double murder took place, and maybe we needed to much time to look back on this shambles of a trial sensibly, even though there was never anything sensible about it. American Crime Story still has to live, to some extent, in the shadow of the real events it portrays, but so far it seems to navigate the weight of those memories and cultural touchstones in a highly engaging, incredibly frustrating, and occasionally wonderful way.
Rating: ★★★★ Very good — Damn fine television
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday, February 2nd on FX.