FX undoubtedly has high hopes for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the latest anthology series from super-producer Ryan Murphy and with a big-name cast that would make most other shows jealous. For all the attention, The People v. O.J. Simpson actually does set itself up to be a compelling dramatization of one of the most polarizing criminal trials of the modern era, once you forget that you’re watching John Travolta and Cuba Gooding Jr.
The first episode opens in an interesting place, recounting the Rodney King beating and the 1992 Los Angeles riots, so as to remind us that Simpson’s murder case happened just two years later. The crime has already occurred at the start of the story, with episode one walking us through the initial actions of the police, just how Simpson became the prime suspect, and how badly everyone reacted to the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman.
The People v. O.J. Simpson is very careful not to take any stance as to whether or not Simpson actually killed the two victims. In that sense, it’s almost better to think of this as another crime procedural, sort of like a more high-profile version of ABC’s fantastic American Crime. If you look at it like that, the show moves along quite nicely, and it gives the audience a quick primer on who all the major players are through slice-of-life beats.
Marcia Clark (Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson, who shot this while also working on the latest installment of American Horror Story) is a hardcore prosecutor but she’s also struggling with two kids and a soon to be ex-husband who wants to drag out their divorce. Her eventual partner in the case, Christopher Darden (an underrated Sterling K. Brown) is contemplating leaving the D.A.’s Office. And as for O.J. himself, Gooding hits all the right notes, making the audience fully aware of Simpson’s ego and volatility and adding just enough edge to make you wonder if he did it.
From a functional standpoint, these are all characters in a fictionalized story; this isn’t a word-for-word recreation of what happened in 1994. But it’s hard to escape the fact that these characters are real people, and that they’re being played by some real heavyweights. It takes a while to stop seeing Travolta and accept him as Robert Shapiro, and that also goes for David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and several other stars. Once you get past that, there’s still the undeniable fact that we all know how the story ends.
The show, then, has no value as a whodunit. The reason to watch The People v. O.J. Simpson is for the performances as the actors bring out the humanity of all those involved. There’s a great scene between Darden and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance on blast), where Cochran tells Darden to “choose a side,” ostensibly referring to his race. It reminded me of that Law & Order episode in which Paul Robinette wonders if he’s a black man who is a lawyer, or a lawyer who is also a black man.
Food for thought, as is Paulson’s Clark wondering aloud why the LAPD detectives who first interviewed Simpson screwed up so badly, and the uncomfortable moment when Nicole’s answering machine goes off with a tearful, desperate message from her daughter while police personnel are processing her living room as a crime scene. There are all these little moments that are disturbing, aggravating, and eyebrow-arching, and that’s where The People v. O.J. Simpson excels.
This show may not have any huge, shocking revelations to deliver about the specific case that it’s depicting, but it will definitely make you think twice about crime, fame, and power, and the stars shine throughout once you get used to them in their roles. Between this series and American Crime, crime dramas on television are reaching a whole new level in 2016.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10 p.m. on FX.