I’m late to the party on this one. I vividly remember all the hoopla surrounding the OJ Simpson trial twenty years ago, and frankly I wasn’t in a rush to revisit that tragic circus. And while I respect what Ryan Murphy has accomplished in television over the past decade, none of his shows have particularly interested me. But for months now I’d been hearing about how spectacular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was, and so I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Holy cow, why did I wait so long??
This ten-episode mini-series is a masterpiece. It was created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who are executive producers along with Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Simpson. The American Crime Story show is intended as an anthology series. This first season, titled The People v. O.J. Simpson, is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
It’s staggering to me that the O.J. trial was twenty years ago. I am confident I am not alone in feeling like those events happened only recently. I remember so many different aspects of this saga, and the incredible media circus that surrounded it for so many months, so clearly, from watching the Bronco chase to Johnnie Cochran’s famous: “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Even more than specific events, I have distinct memories of so many of the cast of characters involved in the trial: Mr. Cochran and Robert Shapiro, Marcia Clarke and Chris Darden, Judge Lance Ito (particularly immortalized in my mind by Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos”), Mark Fuhrman, Kato Kaelin, and so many others.
The People v. O.J. Simpson succeeds both at perfectly dramatizing the moments that are indelibly seared in my (and so many others’) memories (such as the Bronco chase and O.J. trying on the glove), while also shedding light on so many other aspects of the trial that I was never aware of, despite the near-constant media coverage at the time.
What’s even more remarkable is the way that The People v. O.J. Simpson manages to humanize almost all of the individuals involved in the trial, so many of whom were reduced to caricatures by the media coverage and the late-night mockery. The show demonstrates an extraordinary tenderness in its approach to presenting these famous people as human beings trying to do their best. This approach is used for both sides of the case. Much has been written, and rightly so, of the show’s incredible job at resuscitating the reputation of Marcia Clark, so brilliantly played here by Sarah Paulson. And, indeed, this is amazing work. But I was equally impressed by how positively the show presented Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran. One can agree or disagree with their actions, but the show fleshes out both men and allows us to see them as real human beings, not cartoon characters.
The cast assembled is extraordinary, and the key to the show’s success. I can’t recall seeing such a powerhouse ensemble ever before. It’s really something.
I first became aware of the great Sarah Paulson from her one incredible scene in Joss Whedon’s Serenity back in 2005. But she blows the doors off of all of her previous (great) work with her performance here as Marcia Clark. This is one of those very special matchings of performer with character, something made all-the-more special by the fact that, of course, like all the characters on this show, Marcia Clark is a real, and very well-known, person. Ms. Paulson brings great intelligence, dignity, and most importantly of all great humanity (this is going to become a theme as I write about these great performances) to her depiction of Ms. Clark. Ms. Paulson allows us to see the extraordinary strains and pressures that Ms. Clark was under, while also showing us her courage and her strength as she weathered this unprecedented storm in her pursuit of what she saw as justice.
I’d seen Sterling K. Brown before in his small role in Our Idiot Brother (a little-seen, but great, Paul Rudd film), but he was a revelation here as Christopher Darden. The show focused on the difficult spot in which Mr. Darden found himself, as a black man prosecuting O.J., a star who so many African Americans saw as innocent. Mr. Brown played this role brilliantly, exploring that conflict and Mr. Darden’s efforts to see his way through. I also enjoyed the way the show depicted the much-speculated-about relationship between Marcia Clark and Chris Darden. Mr. Brown and Ms. Paulson had terrific chemistry; I loved their scenes together.
On the other side of the case, let’s start with Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. While I of course know a lot about Johnnie Cochran, I have to admit that the image of him that most sticks in my mind — and I suspect I’m not alone — was Seinfeld’s parody of him, Jackie Chiles (played so wonderfully by Phil Morris). The People v. O.J. Simpson does just as incredible job at exploring and humanizing Mr. Cochran as it does Ms. Clark. There’s one critical flashback scene, in which we see a young Mr. Cochran harassed by a member of the LAPD in front of his kids, that is hugely important in our understanding Mr. Cochran’s worldview. That scene might be the most important scene in the entire run of the show.
John Travolta is become something of a joke these days, particularly following the whole “Adele Nazeem” mess, but damn if he’s not great as Robert Shapiro. He plays Mr. Shapiro as sort of an alien disguised as a human, and it’s a remarkably bizarre but compelling depiction. I enjoyed the arc of Mr. Shapiro’s character over the show. When we first meet him, he’s pretty despicable in his willingness to do anything in pursuit of his own personal fame and glory, but as the series progressed I found I had a lot of sympathy for him as he grew uncomfortable with the way the prosecution’s case became so strongly focused on issues of race.
I would never in a million years have thought of Nathan Lane for the role of F. Lee Bailey, but wow he is perfect in the role. Mr. Lane is an extraordinarily gifted comedic actor, but he shines here in this mostly dramatic role. His humor does come through, however, as the twinkle in his eye gives an amusing spin to several otherwise dramatic moments. It’s a great balancing act.
It’s hard to see David Schwimmer as anything other than Ross, but he rises to the challenge here of playing Robert Kardashian. I’ll say once again how impressed I was with the way the show managed to humanize this character, showing his journey from 100% belief in his friend “The Juice” to his eventual disgust and dismay. I was also struck by how the show managed to spin what some see as a strong negative in Mr. Kadrashian’s character — his blind loyalty in his friend, at least at the beginning — into something more positive, as we see Robert as one of the few people surrounding O.J. who seems to genuinely care about him. Mr. Schwimmer is quite terrific here in the role.
Then there is Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. himself. In many ways, this was probably the most difficult role of the piece, as even today so many have such strong beliefs as to whether O.J. was guilty or innocent. The show avoids taking a side, and Cuba Gooding Jr. is able to play almost every single scene in the entire series in a way that works whether you think O.J. was guilty or innocent. It’s an amazing feat of writing and direction, but most importantly of performance.
There are so many other amazing members of the cast. The always-great Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days, Star Trek) plays Gil Garcetti, the L.A. District Attorney; Kenneth Choi is terrific as the put-upon Judge Lance Ito; an almost unrecognizable Malcolm Jamal-Warner is great as O.J.’s buddy, and driver of the White Bronco, A.C. Cowlings; Selma Blair kills her small role as Kris Jenner (Robert Kardashian’s ex-wife); Billy Magnussen is a hoot as Kato Kaelin… and there are so many more!
I’m sorry it took me so long to watch The People v. O.J. Simpson, but I’m so glad to have seen it. Not only is this an incredible depiction of these astounding and tragic events from twenty years ago, but the issues of class and celebrity and race that the show explores are, sadly, just as relevant (if not more so) today. This was powerful television, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since finishing the show. (The episode “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” was a late addition to my list of my favorite episodes of TV of 2016.) Bravo to everyone involved.