I remember it well: it was a Friday night and I was a 21-year-old college student working as a barback. The Knicks were playing the Rockets in the NBA Finals, so we had a good crowd in the bar when they interrupted the game to show a white Bronco moving slowly down a sunny highway, pursued by the LAPD and, incredibly, being cheered on by people on the shoulders and the overpasses.
As the total media insanity of the O.J. Simpson murder trial continued into my senior year, I became obsessed with watching the case on television; it was on all day every day. Sometimes it was fascinating, mostly it was excruciatingly dull, but I was hooked enough that I spent my final Spring Break at home in my little college-student apartment watching Kato Kaelin testify while all my friends were on beaches and ski slopes.
The most frustrating thing about watching the trial in real time was the camera. There was only one, behind the jury, and though it could pan and zoom the vantage point never changed.
The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story emphatically fixes that problem, showing the case from multiple angles: following O.J. through his initial police interview, his arrest, and the Bronco chase; following the assembly of his legal team and all of their out-of-court maneuverings, their ego clashes, and their crises of conscience; following the prosecutors as it slowly dawns on them that nothing they can do will get a conviction, even as they grapple with their sudden (and unwanted) celebrity status; following the jury through the longest sequestration in American history; and of course following the trial itself, one so loaded with bizarre twists and turns the writers had no need to fictionalize anything.
One of the most impressive things about this series – and there are several impressive things about this series – is its balance of tones: though things get very silly at certain points, and the sparring among the lawyers often feels like pure gamesmanship, the show is diligent about reminding us that, as crazy as things get, all of this is happening because two people were murdered in the most brutal manner possible.
For the most part the series keeps things chronological, but it also manages to devote several of the ten episodes to a specific different aspect of the case: prosecutor Marcia Clark’s tortured relationship with the media; the jury’s frustration at being sequestered for the length of the nine-month trial; the internal dynamics of the so-called “Dream Team”; the discovery and deployment of the Fuhrman tapes; and so on.
All of this tricky tonal balance and delicate subject matter is made possible by the series’ phenomenal cast, starting with Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, who’s competent, confident, overconfident, frazzled, and exhausted all at once; Sterling K. Brown as her quietly determined, dignified co-lead, Chris Darden, struggling with the knowledge that he didn’t land the assignment solely on the merits of his legal mind, and who made the disastrous call to have Simpson try on the gloves; Courtney B. Vance as the haunted, complex, and yet flamboyant Johnnie Cochran, who somehow finds a way to fight for Simpson as though he himself were on trial (despite indicating early on that he believed Simpson to be guilty); John Travolta as the impossibly vain Robert Shapiro, who assembled the Dream Team and stumbled upon its winning strategy before having a crisis of conscience; David Schwimmer as Simpson’s loyal best friend Robert Kardashian, who sticks by the man his kids call “Uncle Juice” even as it looks increasingly clear that Simpson did it; and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as the defendant, a man so long accustomed to getting his way that he can’t quite believe he’s on trial for murder, and worse, can’t flash his million-dollar smile or offer a $100 handshake to get out of it.
The only real fault to be found with the cast is that Gooding, at about 5’8’, does not bring the 6’4”, 260-pound O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest NFL players of all time, immediately to mind, but despite this limitation, Gooding manages to find the broken sociopath at the man’s core, all wan smiles and remember-whens.
I can’t say there were a lot of surprises in this series for me, but then I was one of the people who was obsessed with the case, watching it on television between classes and even reading a couple of books – Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, upon which this series was based among them – about the case after it was over. But I was very pleasantly surprised to see how closely the show hewed to my memories of the case, and how masterfully it both fills in the blanks and comments on the 24-hour-news, famous-for-being-famous culture that sprang out of it all, as well as the racial tensions between African-Americans and law enforcement that still haven’t quite healed.
The only thing better than watching it over ten consecutive Tuesdays would be watching it in one long weekend – but you better get busy, as it is only available on-demand through May 10.
All ten episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story are available on-demand with FX.