Season 1, Episode 2, “The Run of His Life,” Aired Feb 9, 2016
Was anyone really surprised when The People v. O.J. Simpson posted the highest series debut in the history of FX? The show’s first episode drew 12 million total viewers – that’s more than Justified, more than Sons of Anarchy, more than American Horror Story. That’s a bit mind-blowing. And it just goes to show that more than two decades later, people are still fascinated by Simpson. Just ask the local news outlets that are running “where are they now” pieces, or A&E, which has broadcast a series of specials on the case. People can’t get enough.
Episode 2 picks up with one of the iconic moments: O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) fleeing from the police in that white Ford Bronco with Al Cowlings (Malcolm Jamal-Warner) at the wheel. Everyone has different but equally intense reactions to Simpson’s escape, whether it’s District Attorney Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) raging, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) turning to prayer, or Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) criticizing Robert Shapiro’s (John Travolta) handling of the situation. You can feel the panic going around.
This installment is a great one for Schwimmer and Travolta, as audiences can compare and contrast the approaches of Kardashian and Shapiro. The former is visibly emotional, worried about Simpson’s well-being and struggling when he has to tell the family that he believes O.J. has committed suicide. Meanwhile, Shapiro’s primary concern is Robert Shapiro and winning the case; when he sees the car chase on TV, his reaction is that they’re “still in the game.” It becomes hard to believe that these two are technically on the same side.
Schwimmer in particular really shows how wonderful of a choice he is for the role of Kardashian. He may always be known as Ross Geller from Friends, but here he’s the most empathetic and compassionate person in the whole episode. He illustrates how Kardashian was Simpson’s friend first and his attorney second, and how the events of that day took a toll on him, too. Especially when you see how Shapiro doesn’t give a damn, it makes the audience appreciate the presence of Kardashian – and of Schwimmer – a bit more.
It’s a dangerous move for the episode to take us inside the Bronco with O.J. and Cowlings, because that’s so charged and so personal that it would be easy to overdo. But Gooding and Warner pull it off, particularly the former as O.J. continues to spiral down and the thrust of the story becomes about saving his life. You’d feel sorry for the guy if you didn’t also know that he was the prime suspect in a brutal double murder, and that tiny bit of sympathy gnaws at the audience all the way through.
“The Run of His Life” also finds ways to remind us just how much Simpson’s celebrity affected the events, whether it’s all the pro-O.J. signs plastered on the gates of his home, the mob of fans that greet the Bronco upon its return to Brentwood like the Beatles just rolled into town, or one officer stating he’s not shooting at O.J. Simpson unless someone orders him to do it. You can see the clues that this man’s status was a huge factor in an already terrible situation, and that sometimes even he didn’t understand it.
There are some odd beats – like the show cutting away to the Kardashian kids excitedly watching their father on TV for no substantive reason – but overall “The Run of His Life” continues the frenetic momentum of the first episode, proving that The People v. O.J. Simpson is able to sustain all that buzz.