Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 8 hours 19 minutes
Starring: Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, Kenneth Choi, Bruce Greenwood, Chris Bauer, Selma Blair & Steven Pasquale
AMERICAN CRIME STORY is the more mature true-crime cousin of FX’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY. This is a new anthology series wherein each season will examine a notorious American crime (hence the not so subtle title) and they picked a doozy for the first season: the O.J. Simpson murder trial. This “trial of the century” was a double-homicide case turned national sensation. A car chase interrupted the NBA playoffs, broadcasts of the trial resulted in a media circus, tabloids took sexist jabs at the main prosecutor, and racial tensions across the country became even more tense. The whole trial is a fascinating story and makes for equally fascinating television. If THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is any indication of the quality in store for AMERICAN CRIME STORY’s future seasons, then this has just become one of my favorite TV shows!
On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman were brutally murdered. The key suspect in the case became football player/actor/Nicole’s abusive ex-husband O.J. Simpson. This was a black celebrity being tried for the murders two white people in Los Angeles, a city where the Rodney King riots had taken place two years earlier. State prosecutors seemed to have an open-and-shut case (with mountains of evidence against O.J.), but Simpson had a dream team of lawyers who weren’t afraid to divert attention away from the actual case at hand by any means necessary. The trial became less about the murders and more about media, elaborate conspiracy theories, racial tensions, police corruption, and celebrity status. You get to see this all play out in painstakingly detailed fashion.
“I already know the ending of this trial,” you might say, “what could possibly be gained from watching this show?” I would respond by pointing out that THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON goes through every fascinating bit of the trial. We see the initial investigation, the forming of O.J.’s legal dream team, just how much the prosecution screwed up in presenting evidence, drama among jury members, the public’s reaction to the case, the race card being played time and time again, and the ultimately heartbreaking verdict. This miniseries keeps a level hand as to whether or not O.J. committed the crimes, even though it’s based on Jeffrey Tobin’s book THE RUN OF HIS LIFE (which works under assumption that O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole in cold blood). We are given evidence for the possibilities of O.J. being guilty as sin (something I believe), but also enough wiggle room for the assumption that he might not have committed the crimes (something that other people might believe). It was an undeniably difficult tightrope to walk, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY does it well.
Besides going through the courtroom drama and murder proceedings, this show also holds up a mirror to mid-90’s America in order to explore ugly truths about racial tensions and media sensationalism. It’s scary how relevant this show is to our current times and how certain things still haven’t changed much. It’s not brought up to an over-the-top degree, but the Kardashian children occasionally pop in and their portrayal is less than glamorous (young fame-seeking whores). It’s an apt reminder that we’re still living in the country the O.J. Simpson trial created. Every time you see a Kardashian “news story,” you’re looking at a direct result of post-O.J. America.
The media circus isn’t the only thing that PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON nails, because we get loads of scenes that examine racial tension. There is a particularly powerful scene wherein Johnny Cochrane is falsely pulled over and handcuffed in front of his children, but keeps his cool. This small moment demonstrates that the black populace were indeed being horribly mistreated in the streets of L.A. (again, Rodney King just a few years earlier). Other areas of the country were just as bad (if not, worse) and it’s understandable that a “win” was needed to feel justice. Unfortunately, that “win” had to come in the form of O.J. Simpson. More rock solid examinations of racial tension arrive in the jury episodes (near the end of the season) as we watch these people interact with each other and base assumptions solely on color of skin. It’s a touchy subject, but AMERICAN CRIME STORY covers it even-handedly and with a level-head.
I’ve mentioned the historical content and deeper areas that O.J. SIMPSON covers, but have yet to mention the performances. To be blunt, they’re brilliant across the board. Sarah Paulson is sympathetic, but equally frustrating to watch as prosecutor Marcia Clark. Sterling K. Brown is great as Christopher Darden, a black face for hire in the prosecution’s eyes and a man who wants to convict a murderer in his own eyes. Kenneth Choi is a dead ringer for Judge Ito and actually managed to come off somewhat likable.
As far as O.J.’s defensive dream team goes, John Travolta plays a diva in Robert Shapiro and Nathan Lane is perfectly slimy as F. Lee Bailey. David Schwimmer isn’t exactly known for his acting prowess, but he’s surprisingly fantastic as Robert Kardashian. His complete arc through the season offers one of the most quietly powerful scenes during the finale. He’s only outshined by Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran. To me, there was no Courtney Vance in this series, it was just Cochran brought back from the dead! Vance is perfect! He captures the rage, determination, and underhanded ethics.
Finally, there’s Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson. Though he might not bear an immediate resemblance to the titular criminal, Gooding Jr. captures the arrogance, mental instability, and anger present in the real-life O.J. It’s funny though, because Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t exactly the focus of this series. He’s actually overshadowed by the legal teams duking it out among one another. O.J. doesn’t get to do much but sit in his chair and occasionally yell at his lawyers. After the first few episodes, Gooding Jr.’s screen time is significantly shortened, but that actually makes for a more interesting show as a result.
Parts of THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON were definitely exaggerated for the sake of ratings (a bar scene between Christopher Darden and Marcia Clarke is clichéd, F. Lee Bailey has an enemy juror nicknamed “the demon,” etc.), but this show also sticks true to the facts on a lot of fronts. It’s unapologetically grim, harsh, and depressing…but also, extremely well-written, carefully detailed, driven by stellar performances, and packs many powerful (frighteningly relevant) punches. THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON is one of the best true-crime television miniseries to ever hit the small screen and I’d also argue that it’s better than most true-crime films too!