“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” FX’s handsome re-creation of the trial of Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman, has sometimes felt overly dutiful, as if it’s missing the sometimes-revelatory trashiness that has defined showrunner Ryan Murphy’s career. But this week, the series did something that’s almost as revelatory as the possibility that a Los Angeles Police Department cop might have been holding onto the murder weapon the whole time: “The People v. O.J. Simpson” spent a whole episode defending Marcia Clark, played here by Sarah Paulson.
It’s not exactly news that Clark was treated hideously during the Simpson trial, criticized for everything from her clothes and hair to a naked picture one of her ex-husbands leaked to the tabloids — and that’s on top of being labeled incompetent. This episode runs through many of the worst moments during the trial, as Rebecca Traister did in a recent piece for New York Magazine and which were reported at the time of the trial by Jeffrey Toobin in his book “The Run of His Life,” from which the miniseries is adapted. (Toobin told Traister that he is more sympathetic to Clark now than he was two decades earlier.)
But it’s not just the tabloid press or cable news that savaged Clark: Pop culture feasted on her and has continued to do so as recently as last year. Until “The People v. O.J. Simpson” came along, the closest TV had come to making it up to Clark was a minuscule guest appearance on “Pretty Little Liars” where she plays a prosecutor who, if not incompetent, doesn’t exactly have much to do in the episode. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” does more, devoting a sympathetic hour to the sexism Clark experienced, anchored by a performance from Paulson that ought to spark year-end awards talk, as so much else in this show has done.
Part of what’s powerful about the episode, titled, delightfully, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” is that it looks at sexism without bending over backward to make Clark likable or soft. She’s sarcastic in divorce proceedings with her ex-husband Gordon (Brian Byrnes). She goes hard on defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and then brags about it in the press. She loses her temper in front of Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi). And throughout the series, Clark misreads the signs that this is going to be a trial about race, and overlooks the risks of putting Detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) on the stand.
But what “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” does is emphasizes the extent to which Clark’s experience of the trial was a fundamentally isolating one, shaped by pressures that applied to no other lawyers in the case, nor the judge, nor the defendant himself.
In the courtroom, Ito is stern with Clark when she asks him to allow her to go home to be with her children, and Cochran mocks her request as “a babysitting problem,” ignoring the obvious thing that they have that she does not: a wife who is expected to stay home with their kids, cook them dinner and to do so without exploiting their care of their children in a custody dispute, as Gordon does. When Clark objects to the treatment of her child-care issues as sexist, she’s treated as if she’s trying to exploit politics that don’t apply to her for personal gain. By contrast, Cochran’s invocations of the Los Angeles Police Department’s history of racism as a defense is taken seriously in the courtroom, despite the preferential treatment the department historically showed to Simpson, who threw pool parties for cops and counted on them to minimize Brown Simpson’s reports of domestic violence.
And when Clark’s looks and personal life are savaged, with TV guests calling her “frump incarnate” and describing her look as “a cry for help,” her boss, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) undermines her in the worst way. “Suki and I, we’re just, we’re appalled when it comes on TV,” Gil says before telling Clark. “I can put you together with a couple of terrific media consultants.” Later, when he finds out that Clark’s ex leaked a nude photo of her to a tabloid, Garcetti — who was quick to defend her when he thought the photo was a fake — almost seems more disappointed in her for allowing it to be taken in the context of a marriage than he is in a supermarket sheet for publishing it.
“I’m not a public personality,” Clark cries toward the end of the episode. “This isn’t what I do. I don’t know how to do this. And those other guys, they’re flashy hotshots. They’re used to it. I just can’t take it.” What’s striking is that Clark isn’t blaming sexism here, though she could have — she’s suggesting her rivals have skills she doesn’t possess. But the real truth is that the difference between them is gender: Clark is saddled with hideously unfair expectations and blamed for failing to meet them while also prosecuting the case of the century.
The way “The People v. O.J. Simpson” treats Clark is striking not just with the benefit of time, but also given the way Clark has been portrayed in the media. Last year, the ostensibly feminist comedy “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” about a woman (Ellie Kemper) who escapes from a cult and moves to New York, ended with series co-creator Tina Fey playing a version of Clark who was not just viciously stupid but also sexually odd.
In the world of “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” Clark and Chris Darden (Jerry Minor) got together after the Simpson trial and moved to Durnsville, Ind., Kimmy’s home town, where they were assigned to prosecute Kimmy’s captor, Richard Wayne Gary Wayne (Jon Hamm). From the moment they introduce themselves, in a literally choreographed routine that begins “I’m Marcia, he’s Chris. Who here likes justice?” to Marcia begging the judge “I’d like to use one of our do-overs, please,” to references to threesomes, female condoms and shower sex, the message is clear: Clark and Darden were dummies who deserved to be stuck with each other and in obscurity forever.
Given that part of what may have doomed Clark in the Simpson trial was her focus on violence against women and her inability to see the emerging racial dynamics of the case, a series like “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” might have considered showing Clark a little compassion.
But then, Fey’s portrayal of Clark in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” was consistent with almost 20 years of depictions. In a 1996 episode of “Saturday Night Live,” a cold open features Barbara Walters (Cheri Oteri) interviewing Christopher Darden (Tim Meadows) about his new memoir, which suggests that he had a relationship with Clark (Nancy Carell). “Did you nail her?” Walters demands. “Were you riding the train to Clarksville?”
Darden breaks down and admits that he and Clark had a relationship during the trial. At that point, the sketch flashes back to the past, and gives us a Clark dumb enough not to notice that Mark Fuhrman was racist despite his telephone greeting of “Heil Hitler!” But more to the point, the “Saturday Night Live” version of Marcia Clark suggests that she had a thing for black men, and for Darden specifically. “Not all of us are racist, Chris. In fact, some of us think black is beautiful,” Marcia purrs, cornering him in an office. “I’m in the mood to break a few taboos.” Later, after they lose the case, she doesn’t seem to care, telling him “Quit whining, Chris. It’s time to take the black Bronco down the 405.”
Both “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and this “Saturday Night Live” sketch paint Clark as incompetent. But whether the “Saturday Night Live” writers intended it or not, that sketch also treats Clark the way Nicole Brown Simpson was treated in death — as discredited by her sexual appetite, her attraction to a black man yet another appetite that rendered her less than innocent.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” takes a gentler tack on the attraction between Darden and Clark: Yes, Darden coaxes Clark into dancing in her office; yes, he calls in to a radio show where the host wants listeners to vote on whether Clark is “a [b—-] or a babe” to cast a vote in favor of her attractiveness; yes, he praises her new haircut. But in this telling, if it’s a flirtation, it’s one inspired by professional solidarity, by Clark and Darden’s shared experience of doing something astonishingly difficult in circumstances no one else could possibly understand.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” is inviting us into that complicity rather than rendering it dirty or foolish. How we respond to Marcia Clark now may not make up for decades of ugliness. But it will tell us something about ourselves.