There are so many mental roadblocks to get past with FX’s new Ryan Murphy anthology series American Crime Story, which is devoting its 10-episode first season to The People v. O.J. Simpson.
For starters, there’s the Ryan Murphy factor since his frustratingly inconsistent work across Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens likely means you already have your mind made up about him. Love him or hate him, you think you know exactly what you’re going to get from one of his shows.
If you can get past that, there’s the simple matter of deciding whether or not you truly need to see dramatic recreations of the infamous 16-month O.J. Simpson trial, a truly momentous, but exhaustively well-covered moment in American history. If you’re old enough, you probably remember the trial perfectly well, or at least you remember how Saturday Night Live was obsessed with producing endless O.J. parodies throughout and even beyond the trial (Tim Meadows’ version of O.J. writing “I did it” on a TV telestrator as an NFL sideline reporter, anyone?).
Of course, the real O.J. probably did it, and though he got away with it he did lose a subsequent civil suit which forced him to pay out over $30 million to the families of the victims. Then in 2007 he orchestrated an insane theft and kidnapping in Las Vegas which led to him being handed a 33 year prison sentence. So, you know, karma.
If you are cool with a Ryan Murphy show AND with a dramatic retrial of the man we used to call “Juice” then you have to come terms with the crazy stunt casting. An older-looking Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays O.J., and a very plastic-looking and camptastic John Travolta continually distracts with his version of Robert Shapiro, O.J.’s lead council. Plus, there’s David Schwimmer as a version of Robert Kardashian, O.J.’s close friend and eventual member of his legal team, but he pretty much looks just like Ross from latter-era Friends if he had a prematurely grey streak in his hair. Selma Blair and Connie Britton are also around as Kris Jenner and Faye Resnick, two reality TV stars who were still just socialites and Nicole Brown Simpson’s grieving friends back then.
In fact, the presence of both Robert Kardashian and Kris Jenner (who divorced three years prior to the events of this series) means we glimpse the infamous Kardashian sisters (and one brother) as little kids. If that’s not distracting enough, we discover in the first episode of the series that before going on his ill-fated white Bronco car chase O.J. nearly blew his brains out in Kim Kardashian’s bedroom at her father’s house. Had O.J. gone through with it his brain matter would have been sprayed across a giant poster of Joey from Blossom.
You don’t quite know if you should be taking this seriously, or if you are in fact meant to laugh at the inherent absurdity of the facts, which is that some of the biggest reality TV stars of all time were tangentially linked to the court case which fundamentally changed the future of television and the way we cover the news. It’s off-putting enough that you half expect young versions of Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie to pop up at some point.
But, dangit, this show is so much better than you’d expect. Yes, it’s Ryan Murphy, but he actually focused on casting and directing (the first two episodes are credited to him). He left show-running duties to TV newcomers Nina Jacobson (Hunger Games) and Brad Simpson (World War Z), and leaned on Ed Wood /The People Vs. Larry Flynt screenwriting partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to handle the majority of the writing.
Yes, it’s the famous O.J. trial, but while we know how it plays out there is much to be learned from why exactly the trial ended the way it did and what it meant for society as a whole.
The first episode begins with a neighbor stumbling upon Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman’s bodies, and ends with a mentally unstable O.J. threatening suicide rather than voluntarily turning himself in to the cops once they’ve issued a warrant for his arrest. Along the way, we see how everything played out, and are overwhelmed with early evidence – the gloves, bloody footprints, visible blood on the white Ford Bronco, Kato Kaelin’s reports of someone banging on his external air conditioner around the time O.J. would have been returning home from the crime scene, O.J.’s general behavior and lack of explanation for a cut on his finger, a prior history of abuse between O.J. and Nicole – which sure made this seem like an obvious open-and-shut case.
The tragedy is then seeing how quickly it all fell apart due to incompetence, overtaxed lawyers and general reluctance to believe a celebrity as nice as O.J. Simpson could have done a thing like this. For example, one of the most arresting early scenes shows us how Marcia Clark (a remarkably compelling Sarah Paulson) reacted with understandable anger while listening to the tape of the cops’ horribly incompetent interrogation of O.J..
She routinely pauses the tape to point out to her colleagues how the cops utterly failed to press O.J. for any real concrete answers. We later we learn Clark was in the early stages of a very nasty divorce when this all went down. With the custody of her two sons possibly in the balance, you think back to the real trial and think, “That makes so much more sense to me now.”
Although O.J. has been tried in the court of public opinion, the show itself doesn’t necessarily take a stand. For example, if you are inclined toward thinking O.J. did it then his epic failure of an early polygraph administered by his lawyers will feed into your world view. However, we also see O.J. defending himself, yelling at his lawyers, “Of course I failed! The mother of my children just died, and every time they said her name my heart rate went up and caused that needle to spin!” Fair enough.
His guilt or lack thereof is almost beside the point. While speaking to EW for their recent cover story about the show, Cuba Gooding, Jr. admitted not even he is sure if O.J. did it or not, “There are weeks when I go home and think, ‘Wow, man, I guess he did it.’ And there are other days when I go, ‘If that’s true, he’s innocent.'” He hopes people don’t focus too much on that, “If we get the audience to forget about the end result and get caught up in the moment, then that’s why we’re here.”
The more interesting commentary this show has to say about this case is undoubtedly further down the road. We see hints of the way it fed into the lingering contentious race relations in America, coming just two years after the Rodney King riots. Courtney B. Vance’s Johnny Cochran is presented as someone who initially wanted nothing to do with O.J. until he sensed what the case meant to the larger African-American community. As Ryan Murphy told EW, the story of this trial still has an incredible cultural relevance considering the current state of race relations between cops and black kids, “When we were in preproduction and working on it, the Ferguson stuff was going down and the Black Lives Matter movement had begun. We were shooting stuff that had already been written months before, and we were like, ‘Wow, the more things change, the more they stay the same.’ It was heartbreaking.”
When you look ahead, you see that Boyz N’ the Hood‘s John Singleton directed the show’s fifth episode entitled “The Race Card.” I can’t wait for that, but after this stellar first episode I’m pretty much in the bag for the rest of this season now. At times, I feel like I’m watching trash TV, with a campy Travolta performance and particularly crass allusions to the Kardashian sisters. However, at other times I am beyond compelled.