Series Review: The People v OJ Simpson

FX’s crime anthology series American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson (or ACS) wrapped up its 10-episode run this past Tuesday and I’ve got a review of the season as a whole coming right up.

When FX announced that they had greenlit a companion series to Ryan Murphy’s wildly successful American Horror Story(AHS) franchise I was skeptical. When they announced it would be tackling the OJ Simpson trail I was doubly skeptical. How could Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for the indulgent and vapid AHS, do justice to such a defining moment in American pop culture?

Short answer? By taking him out of the writer’s room. While Murphy directed 4 episodes of the mini-series, he did not have a single writing credit for this show. I don’t want this review to turn into me bashing Murphy for 1000 words but suffice it say, the man cannot write anything even remotely resembling subtlety. Thankfully American Crime Story captures the insanity and circus of the OJ trial without ever becoming indulgent in all the excess of it.

The People V. OJ Simpson is the brainchild of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. They took the book The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson by Jeffery Toobin and with Murphy’s help adapted the work for television. While I can’t confirm this; I have little doubt that Murphy’s star power was what allowed a cast so overflowing with talent to be assembled here. So obviously his involvement wasn’t the death kneel I thought it was going to be.

Let’s run down the cast list, shall we? Frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator Sarah Paulson played ADA Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as ADA Chris Darden, Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro. This was a heavy hitting cast and, while I believe Gooding was miscast as OJ, everyone delivered incredible and career-defining work. One of my favorite parts was watching Travolta as Shapiro. I don’t know what he was doing but boy was it fun to watch. I could probably spend the rest of the post just talking about the ways each of these actors killed the parts they had been cast in but I’ll let you find that out for yourself. I will say that Paulson and Vance truly deserve any and all award recognition they might receive from this show.

Now, on to the show itself. Given that I was only 1-year-old at the time of the OJ trial, this series was a welcome dive into a moment that I had heard frequently spoken of throughout my entire life but never experienced myself. The OJ trial (as I understand it) almost singlehandedly spawned the 24-hour news cycle and captivated a nation in a way that nothing before it had or could have. For the entire duration of the trial, every spare moment of TV was focused on coverage and not just coverage of the trial, but of every single person involved. It was called a “circus” and based on its depiction in the show, that word doesn’t even begin to describe the events that unfolded over the 11 months of the trial.

The structure of the season allowed the writers to use their allotted episodes to spotlight a different aspect of the case every week. Whether it was the famed Bronco Chase in “The Run of His life” or Marcia Clark’s reaction to public scrutiny (which was so very sad) in “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” each aspect that was focused on felt vital and offered new insights into an already complicated case. There is even an entire episode dedicated to the jury where we see a bit of the toll that being sequestered for 11 months takes on a person. It was compelling TV and not once would I have called it boring.

One small gripe I had with the show was the early depictions of the Kardashian children. It felt so shoe-horned and unnecessary. Yet, the show clearly has such disdain for their supposed “fame” and thankfully the kids have maybe 3 scenes in the entire show. Cuba Gooding Jr. was also horribly miscast as OJ himself. While he still delivered a good performance, there isn’t near enough resemblance between the two men and Gooding’s performance lacked the commanding presence the real OJ no doubt had.

ACS does not shy away from the complicated race politics involved in this trial. It is argued many times throughout the series whether the trial has simply become about race rather than whether OJ did it or not. Now I’ll let you decide which stance you want to take on the issue but, I felt the entire situation is represented well by the show and given the recent racial tensions in the United States, ACS feels especially timely. The OJ trial was one of the first times were racial injustice began to be openly talked about and no matter what you think about OJ himself, I think that is something good to come out of it all. No longer were people just going to sweep it all under the rug. Do those problems still exist today? Yes, sadly they do but a dialogue is taking place that just wasn’t there 20 years ago.

What ultimately got me about ACS was just how tragic the entire story was. Here was a case with almost ironclad evidence and a suspect who couldn’t possibly look more guilty. Yet, the man was acquitted. How could that have happened? The series takes its time in showing us not only the mistakes made by the prosecution but also the stories the so-called “Dream Team” spun to keep OJ out of jail. It is sickening stuff and I had a knot in my stomach the entire time (particularly during the finale). American was consumed with this trial but it became more about the spectacle of it all than justice for the families of the victims. That is what gets me the most. That the lives of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were tragically snuffed out for reasons we may never know and America was too busy watching the show to care about that.

Do yourself a favor and watch this show. If you’re old enough to remember the trial, compare this depiction with your memory of it. If you (like myself) aren’t, then you owe it to yourself to watch this show and understand just why this trial was so important. So much of the sensationalism of reality TV and 24-hour news spawned from this trial. I haven’t been this happy to be proven wrong about a show in a long time.

Gosh, there’s so much more I want to say about this show. I barely touched on Courtney B. Vance as Cochran, the ill-fated trying on of the gloves, or the incredible closing arguments delivered in the courtroom. There is just so many good things to talk about when it comes to this work of art. For the sake of the length of an already long post, I’ll stop here. This was worth the 10 hours.

American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson is available for purchase on iTunes, and Amazon. You can also stream the entire season for another month if you sign into FXNow with your cable subscription.

Share your thoughts on the show below in the comments! Did it do justice to the trial? Did every person represented get a fair shake?

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