Season 1, Episode 1, “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” Aired Feb 2, 2016
The People v. O.J. Simpson has so much expectation placed upon it, but that’s oddly fitting given how much controversy the real-life events it purports to depict had surrounding them more than 20 years ago. That feeling is what makes the show so interesting: for everything that wants to pull you out of the story, there’s something else that sucks you back in.
I’m not going to make any claims as to the accuracy of the show, as they’re not for me to make; I was nine when the double murder occurred, so all my knowledge comes from research and second-hand sources. That and The People v. O.J. Simpson isn’t claiming to be a documentary; it’s a dramatic miniseries, and that’s how it deserves to be judged, as a piece of fiction, albeit one based on reality.
As I mentioned in my initial review, there are so many people in this show and so many of them can be classified as “names” that part of your brain can’t help but see the actors first. Cuba Gooding Jr., John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, Sarah Paulson, Steven Pasquale and Connie Britton are just the start of a long list. It takes a good half hour before you stop going, “Hey, it’s…!”
But you can’t fault the show, because that cast is also its strongest asset. The actors are all constantly watchable, particularly Gooding, whose O.J. vacillates between the outwardly nice guy that endeared him to fans and the guy completely off his rocker that you absolutely believe could kill. It’s interesting to see Schwimmer back on TV in a serious capacity, and nice to see Pasquale after he was really underused on The Good Wife. And while Paulson deservedly has the spotlight as Marcia Clark, this first episode proves there’s something just waiting to be seen from Sterling K. Brown, who portrays her eventual co-prosecutor Christopher Darden.
The People v. O.J. Simpson isn’t about innocence or guilt; it wants to tell us about all the things that went on around and inside the situation as it unfolded. In that sense, the first episode is compelling, whether it’s Clark making Swiss cheese out of the police’s first interview with Simpson, Darden’s unhappiness with his initial job, and how Johnnie Cochran originally referred to the case as “a loser.” The show moves at a fast pace – sometimes too fast – as it shows us every different point of view and very few answers.
Is it worth tuning in every week? Yes, just to see what all these actors are going to pull out of their hats each time, and how it might change your mind. Everyone who was around in 1994 has their own memories and probably their own opinions of the O.J. Simpson case. But to be made aware of the things that weren’t televised – even if it’s just through a dramatic depiction – just adds another layer. By the time we get to the end of this episode, you’re not thinking about that “not guilty” verdict; you’re wondering what the hell is going on in O.J.’s head.
We’re watching a fantastic group of actors tackle a piece of material that almost everyone knows, and that’s a recipe for something worth talking about no matter how you feel about the reality. The only question is what Ryan Murphy could possibly do to top this next season, because he’s just set the bar pretty high.