Really good television makes you feel; it makes you think. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy shows that exist purely for mindless entertainment, but what differentiates those shows from the ones that stay with me through the years is whether I got something more out of them.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has done just that. The 10-episode anthology series written and created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt) has been one of my standouts of this TV season because it resonated with me.
It made me feel for the characters; it made me think about how social issues are as present now as they were more than 20 years ago when the trial took place and that not much has changed. It conclusively moved me.
If you, who are reading, this have not watched the series, do yourselves a favor and look for it. I’m fairly certain you will not regret it. It’s available for digital download or on FX Now.
The limited series based on Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and helmed by a great team of executive producers including Ryan Murphy, Dante DiLoreto and Brad Falchuk (who have previously worked together on Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story, The Normal Heart
, among others), follows the trial of the NFL player turned actor in which he was accused of the murders of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and 25-year old Ron Goldman.
This is what first drew me in. When you know how the story is going to end and you know most of the events that will take place during the series’ run, the suspense needs to be created in other ways. The directing, editing, even the scoring is done brilliantly, but it would amount to nothing if not for convincing portrayals of the characters.
The casting of the series is superb, and not only because nearly all of the actors look a lot like their real life characters, but because of what they bring to the table. I can honestly say that everyone who performs in the series brought their A-game. There are, of course, standouts.
Sarah Paulson is magnificent as Marcia Clark, showing strength and vulnerability, ambition and doubt, all at the same time. Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden makes your heart ache with his touching and sincere portrayal of a black man caught between doing what he thinks is right and his race. Courtney B. Vance is an electric Johnnie Cochran. He completely embodies the character and you truly believe you are watching the real Cochran. Those three are shoe-ins for Emmy nominations, but the one who was the most pleasant surprise to me has been David Schwimmer. His portrayal of Robert Kardashian, the loyal friend who is torn apart by his doubts about O.J. Simpson’s innocence, is incredible. His performance is subtle and clean, he is always acting and reacting, even when in the background of a scene. His eyes say so much of what he thinks without even saying it. Really, I have loved Schwimmer in Friends for years now, but had no idea he had these skills.
Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) and Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey) are also outstanding, as is Joseph Siravo as Fred Goldman, Ron Goldman’s father. His role is small, but he brings so much to it.
So even if you don’t like the story, if you enjoy fine acting, watch for the performances.
Everyone –- even me, who did not live in the U.S. at the time -– knew when the series started how it would end. We all knew about the Bronco chase, the gloves that did not fit and, ultimately, about the not guilty verdict.
This story is so well told that I have been in the edge of my seat plenty of times, my stomach turning in anticipation before the verdict was read, holding my breath during the Bronco chase scenes in which O.J. Simpson threatened to kill himself while knowing without a doubt that he wasn’t going to do it. I also nervously waited to see if Judge Ito would allow the Fuhrman tapes to be played in the trial.
As I mentioned, the directing and editing is truly wonderful, there is no need for surprises or cliffhangers, because it is done so well. Let this be a lesson to future showrunners: spoilers are ok if things are done right.
Be a Witness to the Birth of Reality Television
The show demonstrates quite clearly we have to thank or “thank” the trial for the birth of reality television. 95 million people tuned in for the Bronco chase, the trial was on live TV for 135 days and on October 2, 1995, more than 100 million people watched the verdict live. It was even showed on giant screens in Times Square. It was a phenomenon.
Marcia Clark has stated that she had people come up to her to tell her they loved her show. The “show” had a star, models, wannabe actors, everything the public likes and so, of course, everyone was captivated. Networks naturally paid attention and the reality TV industry was born, with many of the case’s players becoming reality TV show stars.
The Showcase of Racial Tension in 90s Los Angeles
Oh man, this was what won the trial for Simpson. The People v. O.J. Simpson masterfully displays how racial division heavily impacted the outcome of the trial and how the whole trial was handled. It is especially clear in the final episode after the verdict was read and how people react so differently to it, based solely on their race.
Police violence against African Americans was on everyone’s minds at the time of the trial, as the Rodney King riots – consequence of the exoneration of charges against the officers who beat him – took place just a couple of years before the Simpson murders and in the same city. The racial tension was palpable and the distrust from minorities heartbreaking, and you can feel all of it through the screen.
The "Other" Big Social Issue: Gender Inequality
I really feel for Marcia Clark after watching this show. Not only was she a single mom of two kids going through a tough divorce with a very hard and public case on her hands, but really the way she was (mis)treated during the Simpson trial is unbelievable.
As the only woman on the case, she was under constant and unfair scrutiny by the media, the public and even the court and jurors. No one could care less about the male players and how they looked, dressed or talked. Marcia Clark’s hair, clothes and personal life were an affair of public interest. If she was tough and assertive, she was a bitch or “hysterical” (as Johnnie Cochran once called her in court). If she needed to go home to her kids, she was too soft and not invested enough in the case. There were tabloid stories about her love life, speculation about her relationship with Christopher Darden (something beautifully portrayed on the show), she even had a topless picture of her at a beach sold to the National Enquirer by her former mother-in-law (stay classy, lady!).
The public humiliation and sexism she was subjected to was painful. Worst of all was the hypocrisy of people calling out the difference in treatment of people based on their race, but they did the exact same thing based on gender. And this, even if it turns us off so much, is so important to understand and be aware of now. We are still fighting to stop gender inequality more than 20 years after Marcia went through all of this.
Sarah Paulson is, as usual, superb at capturing Marcia’s strength and insecurities; episode 6, aptly titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, is a master class in nuanced acting and conveying so much with so little.
It’s Still Relevant
Yes, more than 20 years have passed since the trial and eventual verdict took place, but – as stated above – the issues behind them are still relevant to how and what we live now. The story encompasses plenty of our society’s fascinations: fame, race, violence and gender. You will not find the show dated, even if the sets, makeup and wardrobe are spot on with the 90s style, the show will still feel fresh, and the story will feel as though it could be taking place during this decade.
Also, please, let's not forget two young people at their prime lost their lives and two families were robbed of their loved ones. This was one powerful series. I hope if someone reading this decides to take a look that you’ll benefit from it as much, and find it as insightful, as I did.