Here’s a strange blessing for our times: May you live long enough to see a sensationally overblown news event that you can still vividly recall turned into a very good and even powerfully thoughtful TV miniseries a couple of decades later.
For, as creator Ryan Murphy and his collaborators on FX’s masterful “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” are quick to remind us old fogies, many viewers will be coming to this material fresh.
“American Crime Story” begins Tuesday from a square-one approach, assuming that anyone under 30 is only vaguely aware that, once upon a time in the dial-up modem days, a retired professional football star was arrested and charged with murdering his ex-wife and a restaurant employee with whom she was casually acquainted.
It happened in June 1994, and by the time of O.J. Simpson’s acquittal 16 months later (oops, spoiler alert), American culture had unwittingly but necessarily entered a new kind of conversation about race, justice and the media — a conversation that remains an important precursor to the #BlackLivesMatter era.
It’s easy for some of us to regard the Simpson saga as a spent narrative, picked apart and talked to death, but “American Crime Story” makes an effective, convincing case that now is a perfect time to turn the story into a piece of topical art. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” isn’t flawless, and it probably won’t stand up to the sort of factual scrutiny that still swirls around its subject matter, but it is ambitiously imagined, surprisingly responsible and practically unerring in tone and pace.
There are stumbles, sure — first and foremost the decision to cast Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson. Gooding is a talented actor who nevertheless lacks the physical and symbolic heft and presence of the fallen hero. Gooding, who typically plays an entirely different and louder sort of “big,” has to tamp down his usual energy in order to play a sullen and egocentric man known to friends as “Juice.” Six episodes in, the viewer will probably have accepted all of the other actors as their real-life counterparts — except Gooding.
But perhaps that’s not as crucial as it seems, since “The People v. O.J. Simpson” treats its star defendant (as well as the status of his guilt or innocence) as a secondary concern. From its first few scenes (a primer on the post-Rodney King mood of Los Angeles; the early-morning howls of the worried Akita; the bloody bodies crumpled on the Brentwood walkway), the series announces itself as more than just a melodramatic exercise in stunt-casting and campy revision — which would be easy to expect, given Murphy’s imprimatur.
Although “The People v. O.J. Simpson” has 10 episodes with which to allow the saga some sprawl, it’s clear that theme and arc are perhaps more important than making sure every twist and turn in the story of record are covered. At the same time, quite a number of the case’s key elements are touched upon, inside and outside the courtroom. (The source material is journalist and author Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book, “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson”; Toobin also serves as a consultant to the show.)
The series steadily ruminates on the subject of fame itself, as Simpson’s B-list celebrity status subsumes his acquaintances, defense attorneys, the prosecutors, the family members of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the witnesses, the reporters, the jury members and court personnel. (Even Judge Lance Ito, played by Kenneth Choi, falls prey to the trial’s allure.)
In one episode, Simpson’s friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), who also serves as one of his many “dream team” attorneys, takes his children to brunch, where they are dazzled by the fact that the hostess recognizes him and offers the family a prime table while other customers wait. Kardashian (who died in 2003) offers his brood (Kim, Khloe — you know) a cautionary word about those who seek fame. It falls on deaf ears. It’s a moment that is almost too delicious in its irony and resonance.
“American Crime Story” is conceived as an anthology series (meaning it will tackle a different tale in future seasons, like Murphy’s bloody thrill rides in “American Horror Story”), but it almost has more in common with the film adaptation Murphy directed for HBO of Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart.” This take on O.J., executive-produced and developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“The People vs. Larry Flynt), is fully committed to the idea that context is everything.
Boy, is it ever. The real attraction in this story was always the legal maneuverings, which make even more sense with a couple of decades of hindsight. John Travolta, whose comebacks tend to occur in 20-year cycles, has a ball covering his face in even thicker makeup than usual, playing Robert Shapiro, the vainglorious attorney who wisely senses that some early mistakes by L.A. police and prosecutors have opened a window into the flammable subject of race. Is it possible, Shapiro wonders, to portray his client, who has for all appearances assiduously avoided identifying with African Americans, as a victim of discrimination?
Enter the legendary defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, in a knockout performance), who not only takes that bet but wrests control of the case from Shapiro — and everyone else. In Episode 5, titled (of course) “The Race Card,” the series goes deep on Cochran’s background and style, contrasted with the inner conflict experienced by Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), a prosecutor who must always wonder whether his role in the case is merely symbolic — and if so, symbolic of what?
What comes across is the inexorable, unrestrained chaos that was the Simpson trial. This is particularly true in “The People v. O.J. Simpson’s” and Sarah Paulson’s exquisitely painful take on lead prosecutor Marcia Clark, who, in the trial’s permanent lore, must shoulder not only the burden of proof (the series once again shows us just how much proof should have been there; how open-and-shut the case first seemed) but also the burden of utter failure.
Perspective and context mean everything here, too, as viewers experience Clark’s naivete about her own sudden notoriety and how the media tore apart not only her courtroom performance but every aspect of her appearance, while she privately endured a bitter custody battle with her exhusband. (It’s a total Murphy touch that an episode about her is titled “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” as if to say that it’s hard to resist teasing her, even now.) Was she that bad at her job? Was she also a victim?
Sometimes good television about past events can make time travel seem almost possible. If you lived it the first go-around, you’ll probably be amazed at how “The People v. O.J. Simpson” sucks you right back in, even if you believed yourself immune or permanently numb to its circumstances and outcome. And if this is all new to you (or like the hook in some old pop tune you can’t quite identify), then perhaps you’ll take to the social networks and start the debate all over again, with new insight and perspective. Given the degree to which it left so many of us feeling outraged or misunderstood, this story could use some fresh meaning.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (one hour) premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.