The People vs O.J. Simpson – American Crime Story: From the Ashes of Tragedy

In the late ‘80’s and early ‘90’s, the intersection of race and crime rarely disappeared from your newspaper’s front page. The coasts were aflame due to allegations of police brutality in New York and Los Angeles. And angry Black residents of LA set the city aflame after a jury set free the cops who beat Rodney King.

America was still smarting from racial conflict when news spread that O.J. went to jail. The team behind the new FX series, based on a book by lawyer Jeffery Toobin (a man who made his reputation commenting on the Simpson case on TV), wants us to recognize that with regards to race and crime, the LA summer was still smoldering. They open the series with news footage of LA on fire, just before O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.) emerges from the darkness to enter into a shiny White limousine.

A slow start

Ryan Murphy, creator of the transgressive gothic horror show American Horror Story, treats the opening episode of his miniseries like one of Law and Order’s ripped-from-the-headlines tawdry tales. It’s a police procedural first, with Detective Philip Vannatter (Michael McGrady) combing through evidence and gingerly interviewing O.J., whom he immediately suspects is the killer.

Murphy spends a lot of time in this first installment introducing the major players in the Simpson tragic play. His muse Sarah Paulsen plays Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor in the case. Paulsen betrays Clark’s ambitions with a wry smile at learning Simpson may be the murder suspect. Courtney B. Vance (married to another Murphy muse, Angela Bassett) comes on as the legendary Johnnie Cochran. Cochran is revealed as a Robin Hood figure who takes the money from his celebrity clients to pay for the work he does with victims of injustice. Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) became famous as Clark’s partner. However, this show illustrates the close personal relationship between Cochran and Darden.

We soon meet Simpson’s friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and powerful attorney Robert Shapiro (John Travolta). Kardashian’s then-wife Kris (Selma Blair) and the reality show brood show up towards the end of this episode. We see Nicole Simpson Brown’s seething sisters at Nicole’s funeral, the scene that caps episode one.

A rough beginning

Those who lived through the events of the summer of ’94 may find the first episode clunky and odd. Gooding spends much of the episode ranting at the tiniest slights. He’s much smaller than the real person he’s portraying, making me laugh unintentionally. However, Gooding’s smaller stature lends Juice some vulnerability, especially when he’s shown handcuffed by two big cops. Travolta’s Shapiro is an effete name-dropper with an oddly plastic face. It’s not the barrister we recall from the non-stop press coverage. Paulsen captures the brusque personality that the O.J. trial jurors came to dislike while capturing her righteous fervor at prosecuting domestic violence crimes.

Getting to the big issues

The big social issues that the trial illuminated, like how race and money play a significant role in determining what kind of justice our legal system affords, received small play in the first episode despite the opening scene where the riot footage put an exclamation point on Murphy’s intentions. Cochran spoke strongly to Darden about the DA’s office refusal to go after cops accused of brutality against a Black woman. Darden admitted that the city had a problem that needed fixing. Surely as Cochran’s role in the trial grows, the more we will hear about the racial issues.

Murphy belabors the point that the trial influenced modern-day, 24-hour news coverage and the media’s thirst for sexy stories. Nearly every moment a TV set is on, reporters are discussing the trial. Desperate videographers sneak into the private area at the Simpson’s home to get scoops, while news vans crowd outside Simpson’s home.

Murphy also emphasized the wealth of the major players in the O.J. trial who supported the Juice. We first see Cochran in front of a closet stocked with suits of a Crayola box of colors. Shapiro is dining with his trophy wife (Cheryl Ladd) in a pricey restaurant talking of high society events. Even the relatively earthy Kardashian owns a palatial mansion.

Taking advantage of hindsight

Murphy’s presentation wallows in hindsight; as the trial progressed, many people – mostly White people – were certain that OJ was guilty. Black people questioned the police’s motives. The first episode, at least, presents a situation where it’s clear the evidence mounts against the Juice. Not only that, Simpson’s friends all walk around with the furrowed brow suggesting they believe he’s guilty, too. Good courtroom dramas leave some room for doubt, yet Murphy has removed all.

It’s early, but the characters appear as types and symbols rather than real people. Only Kardashian and Darden have engaging visible personal conflicts. Shapiro and Simpson display behaviors of unfortunate stereotypes of a Jewish Hollywood attorney and a raging Black athlete respectively. Paulsen’s Clark is all over the place in temperament and motivation. I hope that as the series progresses, the writing and acting will bring depth to the characters.

If this were fiction, it would come off as a dry exercise in a tawdry crime story. However, most of us know how the Simpson trial ended. We know the trial’s legacy on this country and how it shaped the news media’s practices. In this case, such spoilers are a benefit. Knowing what lies ahead, the courtroom drama and related media circus are sufficient enticements to keep us watching.

The People vs. OJ

Tuesdays 10 pm on FX