American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson
Starring:Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, Courtney B. Vance, John Travolta, Kenneth Choi, Christian Clemenson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Bruce Greenwood, Nathan Lane, and David Schwimmer
Created by: Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski
It was the trial of the century, the legal case that gripped America in the mid ‘90s, ultimately culminating in a controversial verdict that remains contentious to this day. Now, nearly two decades later, the murder trial of Orenthal James Simpson returns to television in the form of the inaugural season of the true-crime anthology series American Crime Story.
Titled The People v. O. J. Simpson (presumably because How to Get Away with Murder was already taken), the 10-episode project chronicles the football superstar’s 1995 trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman, for which he was found not guilty by the jury.
The drama – which is based on legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson – meticulously depicts the 20-year-old events in considerable detail. After the victims’ bodies are discovered, cops – including detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) – descend on the scene of the gruesome crime. O. J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) soon emerges as the prime suspect, and subsequently hires the so-called “Dream Team” of lawyers – which includes Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) as well as his friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) – to defend his case.
District attorney Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), who assumes charge of the prosecution, is confident she has built a solid case against the defendant, but then watches it all unravel in court, as the defence casts doubt on the state’s evidence and discredits their witnesses. O. J.’s lawyers shrewdly play the race card, crusading against – even capitalizing on – the law enforcement and justice system’s bias against minorities.
A bizarre media circus devolves, and in the end no one comes out looking good, except maybe Robert Kardashian, who is painted here as a noble voice of reason, torn between his allegiance to his long-time friend and his grief over the mounting evidence that proves O. J.’s guilt.
With some terrific performances from an immensely talented cast – especially Paulson as the resolute but ineffective prosecutor and the outstanding Vance as the defender and civil rights activist who orchestrates O. J.’s victory – the series explores the power of prejudices and agendas while contextualizing the events in light of the country’s racial divide. The writers effectively explore the characters, digging into their circumstances and motives to create complex portraits that make the narrative all the more compelling.
The show brilliantly captures the insanity of the proceedings and will often leave you asking, “did that really happen?!” It’s shocking how often the answer to that question is “yes, it really did!” But there are a few times when the series can’t resist employing its artistic license for dramatic purposes, which leads to my only quibble (other than Travolta’s awkward, campy performance) with the otherwise impressive series. The O. J. trial is one of those cases where truth is very emphatically stranger than fiction; tinkering with reality here is completely unnecessary. The moments in which the series chooses to veer from the facts or throw nuance out the window in order to indulge its pop culture fancies (like its multiple nods to the Kardashian’s subsequent reality TV-fuelled fame) leave you constantly assessing its accuracy and unable to tell apart the fabrication from the recreation.
Still, The People v. O. J. Simpson is a triumphant debut for American Crime Story. Powered by strong acting performances, the show offers a fascinating, riveting look at the complex cloud that engulfed a murder trial and possibly derailed justice. Even though it captures events that happened nearly twenty years ago, the series feels very timely, and will resonate with viewers because the issues at its heart, such as racial inequality and police brutality, sadly still remain relevant.