In 1994, a live broadcast of O.J. Simpson’s white Bronco racing down the LA freeway crashed televisions across the country; it was the start of a very complex story about the criminal justice system, race, abuse, and celebrity. Let’s not forget, the LA riots took place just two years earlier; many saw O.J.’s prosecution as yet another incident in which the LAPD prejudicially sought to convict black men. And then there’s the notion that celebrities can get away with anything (while Simpson raced down the highway, fans lined the road cheering him on, “Run, O.J., run!”). Simpson had allegedly physically abused his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson for years before she was found murdered; the lack of legal consequences for those instances was the first sign of his ability to manipulate the criminal justice system. Two decades later, Simpson’s story sounds all too familiar.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment of a new serial from Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee), takes a closer look at the arrest, trial, and aftermath of the Simpson case, exploring how it changed the culture of live television and the prosecution of public figures. I was four years old when it all went down, and it feels like since then Simpson and all the events surrounding the case have become a punch line. This show attempts to recapture the intrigue, confusion, and gravity of the situation—after all, two people were brutally murdered.
It takes a second episode for the series to find its footing. The first feels like a Lifetime movie (a well-done Lifetime movie, but a Lifetime movie all the same), with the kind of campiness that you would expect from the guy who created Glee. There’s melodramatic dialogue between police officers a la Law & Order and a distractingly high number of celebrities playing celebrities (among them Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, Selma Blair as Kris Jenner, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, and, of course, Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson). Plastic-faced John Travolta’s over-the-top portrayal of celebrity lawyer Robert Shapiro is like a bad Lorne Michaels impression. Here’s a fun game: take a drink every time someone portentously calls Simpson “Juice.”
But once you get past the initial silliness, all the strange-yet-true details surrounding the case make for a compelling drama. Murphy intercuts newsclips from the original coverage of the trial, including the infamous car chase. The show addresses multiple perspectives—there are interviews with the defense lawyers, the prosecutors, Simpson’s friends and family, prominent members of the black community, television executives, police officers, and other athletes and actors.
Gooding Jr.’s emotional performance almost made me feel bad for Simpson until I was reminded again that he totally did it—or did he? (He did.) Even though we all know how the story ends, the pacing, performances, and dramatic flair of American Crime Story makes everything feel fresh and unpredictable.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, Tuesdays at 9 PM on FX