FX stuck the landing with the final episode of its outstanding miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” Tuesday night. The episode, titled simply “The Verdict,” captured the moments leading up to Simpson’s acquittal — including the jury’s notoriously short deliberation of less than four hours — and the country’s extremely divided reactions.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson” is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s bestseller “The Run of his Life” and the source material no doubt helped creator Ryan Murphy and co. tell a captivating story. But the true strength of the series was its cast, which in many cases offered deeper perspectives on key players from both sides of the so-called “Trial of the Century.”
The anthology series is certainly one to watch come awards season. Here’s our ranking of the major performances.
1. Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark
Some positions on this list may be up for debate, but few would argue that Paulson hasn’t been the star. Her performance as Marcia Clark has offered a redemption of sorts for the former prosecutor, whose battle against sexism from both her colleagues and the general public has been a recurring theme over the course of 10 episodes. The show’s sixth episode, “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” painted Clark’s struggle in excruciating detail.
In a Tuesday morning appearance on “Good Morning America,” Paulson said that starring in the series, which she says she hasn’t actually watched, helped change her own view of Clark.
“I really had a very particular image and picture of her… one that I think most Americans had, which was that she was a kind of strident, aggressive b—- for a lack of an articulate way of putting it,” Paulson told reporter Deborah Roberts. “Through all the research I did and the scripts themselves, I just came to realize that was so, so far from the truth.”
Paulson shined in Tuesday’s finale, which portrayed a gobsmacked prosecution team reacting to the jury’s verdict. In one heartbreaking scene, Clark revealed to fellow prosecutor Christopher Darden that she had been raped at 17, a traumatic experience that influenced her efforts to seek justice for victims of sexual violence.
It also made the Simpson verdict that much more painful. “I have something, this thing in me, that wants vengeance, vengeance for victims. That’s what justice is to me, and I have always always had faith that when I look at a jury, we have that in common,” Clark told Darden in the episode.”Everyone wants justice for victims, right? I never doubted that, until this.”
2. Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran
Vance has also gotten rave reviews for his turn as Cochran, who died in 2005. Cochran has been both celebrated and villainized for his role in the trial, and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” offers a deeper look at the defense attorney’s motivations in getting Simpson acquitted.
Vance grabbed viewer attention from the start of the miniseries — Cochran’s name became a Twitter trending topic during the premiere episode. A promo for the series established Cochran’s end-game (and the caliber of Vance’s performance):
During Tuesday’s finale, a teary-eyed Cochran watched as President Bill Clinton addressed the nation following the verdict. “That’s the victory,” he told his legal team. “Our story’s now out of the shadows.”
3. Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden
Brown’s understated performance evoked Darden’s internal struggle as a black man working for the prosecution team in a case that came to represent a deep racial divide in America. He was particularly memorable when Darden was sparring with Vance’s Cochran, and in Darden’s heartwrenching reaction to the verdict (and efforts to console the Brown and Goldman families).
4. Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey
Lane’s portrayal of one of Simpson’s big-name attorneys hit a high note when Bailey and Cochran traveled to North Carolina in an effort to get access to the infamous Mark Fuhrman tapes — a request that is initially denied.
“With all due respect, I don’t know if you play as well in Dixie,” Bailey told a defeated Cochran, before turning on an unexpected dose of southern charm before what he dubbed a “Tar Heel tribunal.”
5. John Travolta as Robert Shapiro
Travolta’s performance as the famed defense attorney has garnered mixed reviews, but regardless of where you stand on the is-it-too-campy spectrum, it’s been something to behold. Travolta’s impassioned portrayal highlighted the defense’s internal divisions early on, as Shapiro was often seen sniping with his fellow lawyers — Cochran in particular. Shapiro and Bailey, once close friends, had a highly-publicized fallout as a result of the case.
The final episode sees Shapiro quickly distance himself from Cochran’s defense strategy following the verdict, delivering this quote in an interview with Barbara Walters: “Not only did we play the race card, we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”
6. David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian
The former “Friends” star’s turn as Simpson’s confidant was perhaps the quirkiest casting decision, but one that worked, at the very least, on an aesthetic level. And Schwimmer deserves credit for offering some depth to a name we’ve heard many times, both in relation to the trial and its massive impact on pop culture. Over the course of the miniseries, Kardashian’s doubts about his friend’s innocence grew, culminating in a scene that saw Kardashian — conflicted to the point of sickness following the verdict — saying goodbye to Simpson for good.
7. Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito
Tuesday’s finale noted that the retired Los Angeles Superior Court judge is “the only major participant in the Simpson trial to not write a book,” and he stayed largely out of the spotlight following the trial. Choi faced the challenge of portraying someone whose position required an impartiality — despite the potential conflict of interest presented by the Fuhrman tapes, which reference Ito’s wife. Choi’s performance is most stirring during that incident, as Ito offers a measured reaction to the wife comments, and tries to keep control of his courtroom when the tapes become a subject of heated debate between the prosecution and defense.
8. Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson
There’s been a good deal of discussion around Gooding’s casting — the consensus appears to be that he wasn’t quite right for the part, despite being a solid actor. Ultimately, though, it matters little in the context of the overall story. In the finale, Gooding did a good job of highlighting Simpson’s slow realization that his reputation was ruined, despite the not guilty verdict. Simpson found himself at a party full of mostly strangers, and unable to get a table at his beloved country club — a factoid referenced in Toobin’s book. The final scene showed Gooding as Simpson staring up at the massive statue of himself in his backyard, as the memory of cheering fans echoed in the far distance.