The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’s Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski hoped their explosive 10-hour miniseries would get America talking about the colliding racial, gender, and class politics that helped football hero and accused killer Orenthal James Simpson beat the murder rap of the century.
What they couldn’t predict was that their FX series would get Americans obsessively re-hooked on the soapy sensationalism and forgotten minutae of the 21-year-old case that divided the country and ignited a new era of true crime tabloid obsession two decades ago.
“We’re very happy with the response this show has gotten,” Karaszewski told The Daily Beast ahead of Tuesday’s season finale. “The fact that it’s getting this level of discourse and it seems to be more than just a ratings hit, people seem to be talking about the issues again. It’s probably the most gratifying thing that’s ever happened to Scott and I.”
In a post-The Jinx and Making a Murderer world, the criminal justice genre is enjoying a major cultural renaissance—moreso when the subject of our collective fascination is onetime NFL superstar Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), who was acquitted for the brutal 1994 murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman but never shook off the stain of public suspicion.
A 1997 civil case found The Juice liable for their grisly deaths, to the tune of a $33.5 million judgment to the Brown and Goldman families; just over a decade later, 13 years to the day of his acquittal, Simpson was found guilty on felony robbery and kidnapping charges and sent to prison for 33 years.
“One of the bigger surprises is the rebirth of the O.J. cottage industry, which we totally did not predict,” Karaszewski marveled. “The Esquire Network is doing twelve straight hours on it, the ESPN documentary [O.J.: Made in America] is six hours on it, Martin Sheen is coming out with a show [called O.J. Is Innocent]—there’s all this stuff that’s come back because the public seems so hungry for more information.”
What’s remarkable about the debut season of the Ryan Murphy-produced American Crime Story is how deftly it retells a saga the public already thought they knew inside and out, paying unprecedented attention to the personal trials and tribulations of major players like prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and her co-counsel Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) to showboating Dream Teamers Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and his frenemy, Robert Shapiro (John Travolta).
Episode Six, “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” for one, should garner Paulson all the awards for her masterful turn as the steely Clark, whose gender invited an unimaginable barrage of sexist and misogynist treatment in the public eye, the media, and even the courtroom—all while the single mother of two was in the midst of an ugly divorce.
“One of our marching orders was to give dignity back to these people who’ve spent twenty years living with shame or being made caricatures of,” Karaszewski explained. “They’d become people that Tina Fey would make fun of, or show up on Seinfeld as a comedic bit. Part of that was because twenty years ago there was so much attention on this case because we only saw them from one angle—you saw them from that Court TV angle, and that courtroom became a soap opera television show so you were able to say whatever you wanted to about these people.”
“It was really about trying to get under their skin,” he continued, “so you understand why Marcia changed her hair—and not only that, you feel so heartbroken by it, and by the reactions to it.”
“We probably put fear in the studio executives’ hearts when we described it as a Robert Altman movie,” laughed Alexander, who with Karaszewski carved out a career making heroes out of misfits in films like Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, Man on the Moon, and 2014’s Big Eyes. “What we meant by that was like in Robert Altman’s Nashville, there isn’t one lead character. That’s probably what made the trial feel that way, because everyone did. Kato Kaelin thought he was the star of his own show. Faye Resnick thought she was the star of her own show. That’s how the whole infotainment complex began!”
With such a zany cast of real life characters to fold in, The People v. O.J. Simpson committed some of the most incisively hilarious moments of television to screen this season. Take the Episode Two moment when Simpson bestie Robert Kardashian, played by David Schwimmer, appears in a televised press conference in support of the accused murderer and a scrum of journalists struggle to remember and spell his last name.
“That was probably the first time the name Kardashian was said publicly, because at the time Kris Jenner was married to Bruce Jenner and the two of them had exercise equipment commercials,” said Karaszewski.
“But nobody knew who Robert Kardashian was!” added Alexander.
“We knew that Robert Kardashian read the suicide note. And when we looked at the footage, he did have to spell his name. We had to remind people that the Dream Team, F. Lee Bailey and Alan Dershowitz, these are all famous guys—but there was this one non-famous guy who no one talked about. Even Jeff Toobin’s book [The Run of His Life] barely talks about Robert Kardashian,” Karaszewski explained.
“We realized, wait a second, the kids would of course be watching this, and he has to spell his own name on television—if you’re a young person seeing your dad on TV for the first time ever, talking about being a Kardashian… why wouldn’t this put a little seed of the empire in your mind?”
The writers and executive producers have plenty of their own favorite moments, most of them stranger-than-fiction developments pulled straight from the history books.
“We knew we had to do the Bronco chase, but for us the thrill of the show was just to dredge up as many goodies as people would not see coming and then surprise them with it to make the story feel fresh again,” said Alexander.
“An example is the Fuhrman tapes. I think that might be my favorite episode! The fact that Lance Ito’s wife, Peggy York, shows up in the middle of that—it was so completely crazy, and I think it was a factoid that was lost to history. So we very judiciously set up Peggy in Episode Four… she got one scene, and it was like, ‘Okay, he has a wife, but we’re not sure why we’re meeting her. Oh, she’s in a cop uniform? That’s bizarre!’ Then you forget about it for five weeks. There’s a wonderful pleasure just in the storytelling of it all.”
One character the pair loved in real life didn’t make it into the final series: Dennis Schatzman, the syndicated local reporter remembered as the first journalist to point out the racial implications of the Simpson trial.
“In the early days we were really fascinated by Dennis Schatzman, who’s the black reporter you meet in Episode One doing the radio interview,” said Karaszewski. “He was the lead reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, which was a black-owned newspaper in L.A., and he was the guy who took O.J.’s handcuffing as a symptom of something larger.”
Alexander and Karaszewski at one point considered making Schatzman and Vanity Fair scribe Dominick Dunne into a recurring Greek chorus commenting on the trial, “but ultimately it seemed a little too reductive to fall back on these people editorializing what we were watching. We let the audience figure out the points we were trying to make,” said Karaszewski.
“There was a just completely crazy incident with Schatzman, who was probably the most attentive journalist of the whole trial. One day he forgot his press badge or something, there was a misunderstanding, and he got tackled on the floor of the courthouse! So you had basically the most prominent black journalist covering the trial being thrown on the floor by the LAPD—in front of everyone else coming out of the courtroom. That was just this insane metaphor for everything that Johnnie was talking about.”
Another colorful real-life figure who didn’t quite make the cut was Simpson buddy/former cop/sometime actor Ronald G. Shipp, who testified in court that the day after the murders, Simpson had told him he’d had “dreams” about killing his ex-wife.
“Here’s a goofball thing I loved so much, which was in the script but didn’t make it into the final shooting script,” offered Alexander. “In Episode Eight the jurors just got set up at that hotel, eating that hotel food. It’s cafeteria food three meals a day. One juror goes back to his room and says, ‘I’m not even going to eat dinner.’ He’s in his room sulking and he looks down on the phone and it’s like, ‘press 4 for room service.’ He’s like, ‘Room service…?’
He says, ‘Can I order? Can I order… a steak?’ And he proceeds to order chocolate lava cake, lobster bisque—we were just milking this thing. He eats this delicious meal and goes down the next day and tells a few of his friends on the jury, ‘I found this loophole!’ So the jurors start doing that, and Ito gets a bill and goes ballistic—‘What the hell, chocolate lava cake?! This county has a budget!’”
Like any of us, Alexander and Karaszewski still have lingering questions over the bumbled police investigation, the melodramatic and often mishandled trial, and its outcome.
“I still don’t understand how Johnnie was allowed to redecorate the house,” said Karaszewski. “It’s crazy! Ito was there, he signed off on something… but that will remain a mystery until my dying breath. It was no longer a crime scene, and it was up to the family to do what they wanted with it…
“Legally, the only thing they could have done was decide not to come,” Alexander added. “I mean, they clearly got manipulated.”
Then there’s the matter of those gloves. “Sometimes I look at the tape and say, ‘Of course they fit him!’ And other times you look at it and you’re like, ‘Oh, they don’t fit him,’” admitted Karaszewski. “It is a Rorschach test—you see what you want to see. If you want to believe he’s the murderer and that they fit, you can look at it that way. But if you want to believe he’s innocent and the gloves are not his…”
Not that the People v. O.J. Simpson executive producers are on the fence about Simpson’s innocence. “I think it seems pretty obvious,” said Alexander. “The evidence is pretty compelling.”
“Yeeeeeah,” Karaszewski chimed in. “But hopefully viewers come out of the show and they say, maybe it wasn’t proven beyond a reasonable doubt—”
“And that they understand the verdict,” Alexander added, finishing Karaszewski’s sentence. “We always thought the evidence pointed to the conclusion that he did it, over any other possible perpetrator. But the plot of our show is, how did he get off? How did the jury come to this conclusion? I think people now understand. People might think, ‘If I was on that jury, I might totally believe O.J. did it—but I don’t know if I would have voted guilty.’”
The brilliance of The People v. O.J. Simpson, in addition to the performances, the character interplay, its tragicomic tone, and those utterly perfect musical cues, is in how it illustrates that there wasn’t just one crucial element that swung the gavel in Simpson’s favor but a perfect storm of evidence, post-Rodney King racial tensions, squirrelly witnesses, unpredictable jurors, and circumstance.
“You can say it boils down to one thing, race,” Karaszewski offered, “but there were also gender politics and class issues. The big issues of our time have roots in this big tabloid celebrity murder trial. We wanted to make it say something about today—that we’re not post-racial.
“All you’ve got to do is watch the aftermath of a Hillary Clinton debate to hear very Marcia Clark-like things being said about her. Why is she so shrill? Why didn’t she smile? What’s with her hair?” added Karaszewski, who with Alexander will produce American Crime Story’s Katrina-focused second season as the pair also adapts a Patty Hearst project from O.J. author Jeffrey Toobin.
“If Scott and I are still alive in twenty years,” laughed Karaszewski, “maybe there’ll be a People v. Donald Trump.”