With a stellar cast and a wink towards the world the case created, American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson is an enthralling cultural document.
“Fame is complicated!”
I have two distinct memories of the events surrounding the O.J. Simpson murder trial, even though I was only seven years old at the time. First, I remember taking a vacation to Disney World with my family and coming back to our hotel room after dinner to find all three major networks broadcasting a low-speed car chase. The second involves visiting my great-grandmother during my summer break and finding her absorbed in the televised broadcast of the trial. The names Marcia Clark, Lance Ito, and Johnny Cochran didn’t mean anything to me, and Simpson himself was just a man in a courtroom on TV. I knew nothing of his athletic career, or the racial issues surrounding the trial. When Simpson was acquitted I understood it to mean he was actually innocent. That’s how the legal system works when you’re seven and ignorant.
Still, even then, I understood that whatever was happening with this man was important. To a seven year-old’s brain it wasn’t that different from the Oklahoma City bombing, which happened concurrently; television networks covered both endlessly, and adults gathered around the TV to watch. The whole world seemed to almost revolve around this one case. It wouldn’t be until years later that I could appreciate just what O. J. Simpson and his murder trial meant to America. It remains a complex narrative that continues to fascinate to this very day.
That brings us to The People vs. O. J. Simpson, the first installment of the American Crime Story anthology (a sort-of spin-off from FX’s American Horror Story), which will focus on different, famously high-profile cases. It’s also the latest offering from Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for Nip/Tuck, Glee, Scream Queens, and the aforementioned American Horror Story, and if those titles don’t scream “quality,” understand that I’m there with you. Murphy is the current king of gaudy entertainment, with shows featuring boldly oversaturated colors, big name guest stars, and over-the-top writing (the current season of AHS stars Lady Gaga as a vampire fashionista/hotel owner). So it with great surprise that I inform you that The People v. O. J. Simpson is great.
The other thing about Ryan Murphy’s shows is that, once you buy into the audacity, they are incredibly watchable, and that trait is on full display here. Living in what’s often called “the golden age of television,” it’s hard to remember that TV was once primarily a source of amusement, not art. Sure, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, and The Sopranos are great, but they can all also be dour and difficult. By contrast, episodes of The People v. O. J. Simpson fly by in a way that seems impossible. It’s just so damn entertaining.
Murphy and his team have assembled an impressive group of actors for the production. First, the star power: Oscar winner (remember that?) Cuba Gooding, Jr. returns from Hollywood’s castoff bin to play Simpson, with John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian, and Nathan Lane’s F. Lee Bailey giving him legal advice. Selma Blair has a recurring role as Kris Jenner while Connie Britton moonlights in a few episodes as Faye Resnick. They’re the names that bring viewers, but you’ll stay for the character actors: Sarah Paulson and a fabulous wig play Marcia Clark, the combative state prosecutor whose cocky self-assurance begins to crumble when the seemingly “slam dunk” case becomes increasingly embroiled in media furor. Under the perm and endless packs of cigarettes, Paulson’s acting is spot on as a woman who craves the battleground of a courtroom and uses trial victories as proof that she has her professional life together, even as her personal life spirals out of control. She has a frostiness that belies the southern California setting.
There’s equal praise for Courtney B. Vance, whose performance as Johnny Cochran is pure fire. His Cochran exudes intelligence and confidence without overwhelming his costars (a beautiful irony, considering the role). In a scene where Cochran is working late at his office, about to take his first call from Simpson, he privately frets with his desire for the fame and fortune that would come with defending him. He oozes confidence that he is the right man for the job over the course of the exchange before bursting into anger upon realizing it’s actually a prank call. The nuance in Vance’s performance as he vacillates between charisma, uncertainty, confidence, and frustration will make you wonder why he’s so often been relegated to the Law & Orders of the world.
What’s so incredibly interesting about The People v. O. J. Simpson is the way it reflects the world that the trial helped create. In many ways, the Simpson trial represents the birth of our current 24-hour celebrity culture. This “trial of the century” was the first such event of the modern news cycle, with CNN having firmly established itself as a constant source of information during the first Gulf War. But with that over, the cable channel spent endless hours openly interviewing and speculating about the case. The “Big Three” broadcast networks all famously aired the Bronco chase, with NBC even going so far as to relegate the 1994 NBA Finals to a secondary box in the corner of the screen.
On the show, Marcia Clark is dismayed to see key witnesses selling their stories to news outlets while Shapiro, Cochran, and the legal “Dream Team” use the press as a weapon. They openly speculate about the racial implications of the case on TV and in a famous New Yorker article to gain support in the black community, despite the overwhelming evidence against Simpson. As assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden asks his neighbors during the Bronco chase why Simpson shouldn’t be considered “culturally white” for abandoning the inner city for a wealthy lifestyle in white communities, the neighbors respond with an observation reflecting the racial strife of Los Angeles: “He’s got the police chasing him. He’s black now!”
While the sheer number of star performances in the show would be distracting in another story, they only serve to reinforce the power of celebrity. John Travolta is genuinely terrible as Robert Shapiro; he’s trying hard, but his performance seems weirdly stiff and incoherent. His Shapiro seems like an alien who somehow landed in the middle of Los Angeles and was accepted into the biggest event of the day. Still, his presence feels perfect. Travolta is a washed up star attempting to regain some celebrity capital with a role in popular show. It’s an unintended meta-reference to the very world he trial is creating.
The same goes for the inclusion of Robert Kardashian’s children and ex-wife. Did they really play any sort of substantive role in the Simpson case? Of course not, but would the world that fosters Keeping Up with the Kardashians even exist without the sensationalism and over-coverage of this trial? All of these celebrity references would be gauche elsewhere, but here they fit like a brown leather glove. (Allegedly.)
The O.J. murder trial fascinated, and in many ways still fascinates, America. Sometimes I watch The People v. O. J. Simpson and openly wonder why someone hasn’t attempted this before. Take a famous murder case, stuff the cast with celebrities, and replay a seminal moment in American culture for ratings. It’s like a premade smoothie of things popular culture loves. HBO’s Recount was a definite influence, but, in so many ways, this feels like a project that could only exist in the culture of 2016.
I’m not sure that future installments under the American Crime Story will flourish the same way. The anthology series is tricky. You only need to hear the word “True Detective” to remember how quickly a seemingly perfect series can wither, but, at least for Season One, American Crime Story is working. The things that damn it are the same things that make it absolutely brilliant. That’s praise. That’s an indictment. The People v. O. J. Simpson is perfect schlock.