In the true crime genre, particularly when it's taking on a case as popular and memorable as O.J. Simpson's, there is always one inherent problem: how do you build suspense in telling a story when we already know the outcome? True crime can be one big spoiler: if you don't have the patience to sit through all episodes of Making a Murderer or The Staircase, you can just glimpse the outcome through a quick Google search. When it comes to O.J. Simpson, we already know all of the basics — the white Bronco chase, the courtroom theatrics, the "if it doesn't fit" rhetoric, the acquittal — so a series following the case has the potential to be desperate at worst, redundant at best. But with American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson, the FX series finds a way to recreate actual tension, to tell the "untold" story of a case that dominated headlines, and to delve into the deeper themes to create a dark, addictive character study.
Any hesitance to jump into American Crime Story is understandable, maybe even necessary: Ryan Murphy isn't exactly known for his nuanced depictions of non-white characters (see: Scream Queens) nor is he known for his ability to rein himself in when he could, instead, go over the top (see: American Horror Story, later seasons of Glee, Nip/Tuck, Popular). But a key to loving American Crime Story is to put Murphy out of your mind entirely — at least as a writer: he has no writing credit on any of the first six episodes, but he does direct a few — and go into it with a clear mind.
The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment in the planned anthology series American Crime Story, is based on Jeffrey Toobin's smart and exhaustive book The Run of His Life. The focus is more on the lawyers, the behind-the-scenes litigations, the racial tensions both in the courtroom and on the streets, and the deep interpersonal connections and conflicts between attorneys than it is on O.J. Simpson himself. It's a smart move, because we already know Simpson. Even those with a cursory knowledge of Simpson are aware of the major keywords (football, Hertz, Naked Gun, bronco, murder). A series that simply rehashes those touchstones would be unnecessary — and besides that, not competitive in today's exploding true crime economy.
Of course, this built-in background knowledge does help the series by giving it an immediate interest and must-watch quality, especially to everyone who remembers halting their night's plans to obsessively watch the infamous car chase. But what really propels The People v. O.J. Simpson are all the smaller details and themes. What especially stands out is the surprising emotional depth given to real-life lawyers like Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden, and Johnnie Cochran who, prior to now, were mostly known in caricature form: sound clips, iconic images, memorable quotes, flashy suits, and questionable hairstyles. In some ways, this character depth is bizarre; at some point during the sixth episode, I realized I was shipping two real-life prosecutors (#TeamClarkden).
The People v. O.J. Simpson puts its race cards on the table immediately. The series opens with the video of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots in Los Angeles, establishing the tense racial climate between blacks and police officers in the early ‘90s before skipping ahead to the Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman murders. The conflict between blacks and police, a conflict that is as relevant today as it was then, remained front and center during the Simpson trial. "We're not cheering for O.J.," says one man on the overpass during the chase, "We're booing the LAPD." O.J. famously asserted "I'm not black, I'm O.J."; one man jokes that O.J. is "black now" that he's got the cops chasing him.
The racial tensions aren't just with the cops. There is an internal conflict that many black people — my family included — had during the Simpson trial: on the one hand, Simpson seemed to outwardly distance himself from his race, and much ado is made about how he surrounded himself with mostly white friends. But on the other hand, the case was bigger than him; it didn't feel like Simpson on trial, it felt like all black men on trial. The trial was a microcosm of the world in 1995, and The People v. O.J. Simpson accurately depicts that.
It even goes one step further. Episodes remark on Christopher Darden's role in the trial — "How can a black prosecutor contribute to black society?" — the long jury selection process that heavily involved race, Cochran's role as being seen as Black first and Lawyer second. Yet, for a Ryan Murphy production, it's all surprisingly low-key. There are definite moments of big stage productions — the jarring directing of a scene in which Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey repeatedly uses the word "nigger" is just a slam zoom short of an extreme parody; the "100 percent not guilty" plea moment is basically a music video (but a good one!) — but for the most part, the writers let the characters and performances speak for themselves.
Courtney B. Vance is positively mesmerizing as Johnnie Cochran, able to portray decades of race frustrations in a single glance or a simple enunciation, whether he's being pulled over by a white cop or standing tall in the courtroom. Sterling K. Brown is also great and intense as Christopher Darden, and every scene in which the two black lawyers face off is a scene made of pure fire. As O.J. Simpson, Cuba Gooding Jr. is good as always, though — perhaps intentionally — he fades into the background more than you'd expect. He shines when it comes to private breakdowns vs. public composure (a recurring theme with Simpson and Robert Shapiro), acting almost solely through facial expressions rather than spoken words. John Travolta (as Robert Shapiro) and David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) try their best, but both come off a little wooden and desperate — though watching the latter tote around mini-Kardashians makes me crave some sort of Muppet Babies spinoff with little Kim & co.
The trial was a microcosm of the world in 1995
Extra praise must be given to Sarah Paulson for her brilliant and occasionally emotionally devastating portrayal of Marcia Clark. Clark isn't someone I expected to feel sympathy for but throughout the series, it's impossible not to. The People v. O.J. Simpson depicts a complicated and frustrated prosecutor, one who wants justice just as bad as she wants to go home and hang out with her children. The media destroyed the real-life Clark, harping on her looks and "bitchy" demeanor (the way most strong, outspoken women are destroyed), her ex-husband publicly attacked her, and her nude photos were leaked. The People v. O.J. Simpson deals with this delicately, never painting her as the "Can a woman really have it all?" LawyerMom we see in most TV dramas, and instead letting Paulson's reactions do the talking: the attempt to keep her voice from wavering, the professional friendship with Darden, the quiet breakdown into a coffee cup, the disbelieving glare at a cashier who rings up her tampons and jokes that the defense is in for a tough week.
While the "trial of the century" is the biggest selling point for The People v. O.J. Simpson, it's these smaller moments that make the series so endlessly compelling. My plan to check out the pilot quickly turned into watching all six available episodes — twice — and cursing the long wait for the seventh. It's the binge-worthy drama that Ryan Murphy keeps trying and failing to make, though this time it actually sticks.