“Oh my god. We’re going to look like morons.”
The white Bronco’s raced off. The Juice is loose. And, in the last moments of Tuesday night’s arresting The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premiere, Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson) practically winks at the audience, foretelling the two decades of punchlines that were to come.
There is so much to talk about in relation to FX’s retelling of the Trial of the Century.
There’s John Travolta’s studied gregariousness as Robert Shapiro—not to mention a set of darkened eyebrows that will follow you to your dreams. That scene where David Schwimmer, playing Robert Kardashian, begged O.J. not to shoot himself in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom. The sheer scope of the talent involved.
But perhaps the most shocking thing about Tuesday night’s People vs. O.J. Simpson premiere is that, though the trial ended over 20 years ago, you can’t help but watch American Crime Story and feel like it’s happening today.
Tuesday night’s premiere was the first of 10 episodes in the event series, a loose dramatization of Jeffrey Toobin’s novel The Run of His Life that is executive-produced and directed by Ryan Murphy—a name that, thanks to the tonal whiplash and quality see-sawing of shows like Glee and American Horror Story, is as thrilling as it is unnerving.
Pair that name with that of O.J. Simpson and you can practically hear the collective cultural scoff.
In fact, Ryan Murphy’s initial reaction when he was presented the script is kind of the reaction we all had when we first started seeing ads and billboards for the series. “I remember saying, ‘Oh God, really? Haven’t we heard enough of that?’” he told Vulture.
What Tuesday night’s premiere—and the five ensuing episodes that were provided for critical review—suggest is that we unequivocally have not.
With the bold creative cajones that, again, really only Murphy possesses, the People vs. O.J. Simpson recontextualizes the case we know so well with the larger themes that surrounded it, themes that are just as resonant today as they were then.
Race. Celebrity. Fame. Sexism. Police corruption. The power of media and the even greater power of cultural discontent. Working from a script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), these broad issues are juggled with nimble dexterity, turning the Simpson trial into the kind of circus you want to applaud rather than, as it was then, something you couldn’t run away from fast enough.
Because this is a Ryan Murphy production, you needn’t fear any subtlety. That the show would be a critique of racism and how it permeates not only the justice system but all of society—and continues to do so today—isn’t so much hinted at as it is hurled at you like a Molotov cocktail. And you know what? It’s effective. You pay attention.
Tuesday’s episode opened not with footage of the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but with footage of race riots after the LAPD’s beating of Rodney King three years prior.
The city still had not settled from the disgrace of it all. The images you see are jarringly similar to the ones we’ve witnessed out of Ferguson, Baltimore, and too many other cities over the past year. You realize that, decades later, we’re still waging the same war.
From there the action transports to Brentwood. Simpson, played here by Cuba Gooding Jr., is skipping town to Chicago. Police encounter the crime scene. The glove is there, and so are the bloody shoe prints.
We see the white Bronco. We see the blood inside it. We meet Kato Kaelin, played with operatic goofiness by Billy Magnussen, as he is questioned by the police. “I’m not an official person, I just kind of live back here.”
We meet Paulson’s Marcia Clark as she’s frantically readying her children for school, fielding a call about the Simpson murder at the same time. “Brentwood? Nobody gets killed in Brentwood,” she says, the first of the series’ many overt laugh lines.
Eventually, the players are introduced. Courtney B. Vance’s bombastic take on Johnnie Cochran suggests he was born for this role. The early seeds of the Simpson trial as an allegory for the race struggle are planted here.
In a later episode, when it’s suggested that Cochran join the defense team, Simpson says, “I’m not black. I’m O.J.!” When Sterling K. Brown’s ADA Christopher Darden observes the Bronco chase with neighbors, he suggests that Simpson isn’t a part of the black community. “He’s got the cops chasing him,” he’s told. “He’s black now.”
Also orbiting Simpson is his attorney Robert Shapiro, played by Travolta with a kind of flamboyance that doesn’t exactly match the real man—but which develops into such a careful study of self-absorption you end up admiring the subtle brilliance of the performance. David Schwimmer is Robert Kardashian with his heart on his sleeve, and a brood of young future reality TV stars to wrangle.
The Kardashian girls pop up in only a handful of People vs. O.J. Simpson scenes, but their presence looms large.
Sure, it’s hilarious when Selma Blair’s Kris Jenner barks at them to stop running amuck at Nicole’s funeral, and it’s headline-making when we see Simpson threaten suicide in Kim Kardashian’s bedroom. But when, in a later episode, Robert sits his kids down and warns them, “Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart,” the relevance of it all, though heavy-handed, is just about perfect.
Yes, racial tensions may have been more important during the Simpson trial than the football star’s actual guilt. The unprecedented coverage of the Trial of the Century and the grotesque way it turned its players into media stars foretold our reality TV obsession two decades later. Our fascination with celebrity—whether “famous for being famous” or famous for having ties with a murderer—has yet to be cured.
These themes are telegraphed as blatantly in The People vs. O.J. Simpson as if Cochran had been shouting about them while waving around a glove. But in an age of television with an insatiable appetite for true crime—and a knack still for exploiting media stars of yesteryear for today’s vapid entertainment—it’s these sweeping topical themes that make American Crime Story such a rich viewing experience.
There’s a shamelessness to the way the series blares its intentions. But this is O.J. Simpson we’re talking about. Shameless is par for the course.
Where the show excels, though, is its marriage of those things with its humanization of these characters we’ve, in our minds, turned into caricatures.
Paulson’s work as Marcia Clark is the best she’s done yet, shot while simultaneously filming the most recent season of American Horror Story. She’s a woman on a mission in Thursday’s premiere, aghast that the system had failed Nicole, a victim of serial abuse, because her abuser was a celebrity. Then, she is appalled at the negligence of the police and detectives who bungled the investigation.
But in following Clark back to her home life, you see a woman in the midst of a divorce as her face is thrust to the lead of every evening news story in the country—her hair picked apart, her personality labeled “bitchy,” her competence questioned. For the first time, Marcia Clark seems empathetic. Because, for the first time, she seems real.
You see Darden as he reluctantly sits beside Clark, struggling with accusations that he was promoted to the table as a token black representative, or, worse, an Uncle Tom for sitting there. Then there’s the fascinating explosion of Johnnie Cochran’s career, as he was more concerned with racial crusading than litigating.
And then there’s O.J. Simpson.
Gooding’s performance is loose, but not showy. It’s a controlled portrait of O.J. Simpson played down the middle, a shrewd strategy as it allows us to shade him with our own feelings about his guilt.
When Simpson gets the phone call that Nicole was murdered, are Gooding’s tears genuine or faked? When he’s double-checking his story with Kato Kaelin, is he faking an alibi or covering his ass in a witch hunt?
Gooding never betrays the answers to any of this, which makes a person whom we’ve spent two decades preoccupied by all the more fascinating as a TV character—one whose intentions are frustratingly indiscernible.
The premiere ends with Simpson in the Bronco speeding away. It’s thrilling, really. They’ve done such a good job reanimating these characters into such real humans that you almost forget what happens. Is he going to get away? Is he going to kill himself? Hell, is he guilty?
Once again, you’re purchasing your ticket for the O.J. Simpson three-ring circus. What you didn’t realize was that, 22 years ago, this was more than just a side show. It was a sign of what was to come. It’s been two decades, and look around: The circus is still in town.