Author’s note: Spoilers will be treated as open-season in this review given the nature of the series following parallel to historical events
The first season of FX’s anthology series American Crime Story follows the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson & Ron Goldman and the trial of O.J. Simpson for their murders afterwards. Led by infamous showrunner Ryan Murphy (Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story), who produced a slew of other hits for Fox & FX before now signing a deal with Netflix, the show was able to reel in a dynamite cast of talent to portray the larger than life players from the trial on screen. The series rolls out the introductions to each of its characters in grandiose fashion, painting all of them to be rock stars. For better or worse, the series succeeds in making all of its characters wildly compelling and most of them are sympathetic as well. The story of the case and its trial were naturally groundbreaking and captivating when it was happening in real time, and the show is successful at conveying that in this 10-episode series.
The series begins with its premier debuting right after the murders occurred, following the police as they first arrive on the scene and the steps that occur leading them to believe O.J. Simpson is their prime suspect. From then, we see the immediate reactions to the murder from characters we will come to have a relationship with over the next nine episodes and what in real life turned out to be a couple years. Cuba Gooding Jr. (Boyz n the Hood) plays O.J. Simpson in a super juicy role. I loved his performance and really bought his portrayal of Simpson as a loose cannon. Next, we meet a few of the people that would be closest to O.J. throughout the trial. Rob Kardashian, played by David Schwimmer (Friends), is a deeply sympathetic character and one the series more or less uses as an audience avatar. Schwimmer really impressed me here, and he certainly stands as a big winner from the show as a whole. A.C. Cowlings, fellow football star, is played by Malcolm-Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show); he is also very good friends with O.J. and as the trial progresses he never wavers from seeing O.J. as anything but innocent. Finally, from the very beginning, Robert Shapiro was brought to Simpson’s aid as the head of his defense team. Shapiro is played here by John Travolta (Saturday Night Fever, Pulp Fiction), who is really going for a particular look and demeanor. His performance comes off fairly strange at first, but as we see Shapiro need to do some maneuvering in order to maintain both their case and his own image, even his character grew on me over time.
The series’ second episode focuses primarily on the infamous chase on the Los Angeles freeway of A.C. Green & O.J. Simpson fleeing from his impending arrest and the abundance of police cars pursuing them. This was thrilling to see played out as someone too young to remember the actual chase broadcast live around the world. So many fascinating details I wasn’t aware of, like the fact that O.J. was in the backseat having a nervous breakdown with a gun to his head, or that the chase cut into the live broadcast of the 1994 NBA Finals. Gooding gives his best work of the series here, adequately conveying the idea of this psychotic maniac on the run from the cops as he comes to grips with his reality. What was an iconic moment of the 90s is imitated here in the form of a television episode and it is done so with flawless execution, standing out as the highlight episode of the series.
From there the series becomes a mightily exciting court room drama, playing out the trial and everything surrounding it over the course of the next year-plus. O.J.’s “dream team” is formed, with Johnnie Cochran quickly taking the reigns of the defense as their team came to realize that playing “the race card” was their best shot at victory. Courtney B. Vance’s (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) performance as Cochran is my favorite of the series. He brings exemplified energy and enthusiasm to the character, while also providing depth with insight into the pride and conviction of the bloodthirsty lawyer.
Meanwhile, we also see the other half of the story, the prosecution team. Led by Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as Marcia Clark and Sterling K. Brown (This is Us) as Christopher Darden, the audience is meant to sympathize with them and see the defense as the veteran team our young and passionate prosecutors must overcome. We see the peaks and valleys of their relationship as a team, as friends, and perhaps as something more. I genuinely loved the work from Paulson and Brown here, their energy together is kinetic and the chemistry they share is palpable. The two of them are both fighting prejudices against them by being a woman and a man of color, respectively. They are able to find comfort in each other, but at times the severity of their circumstances is too much for them to bear.
Over the course of the series we see other infamous moments played out on screen, whether it be O.J. trying on the glove and everything leading up to that crucial revelation, or Chris and Marcia’s trip up to Oakland for a weekend getaway. The series does an excellent job of showing the media and public obsession with the case. The case is shown given the context of the Los Angeles riots having taken place two years prior. Cochran used the racial tension to his advantage in every way he possibly could, and it was fundamental in building up doubt in the jury’s mind in regards to the police department working against Simpson. Between the racial tensions of the time playing to a nearly all-black jury, along with the resounding impact of Darden’s failed attempt at having Simpson try on the glove, the jury quickly moved to acquit Simpson without a second thought.
The final episode of the series shows the closing statements from both sides, the jury deliberations, and the delivery of the verdict. The tension in the courtroom is felt through the screen and when the verdict is made, we can feel the hope evaporate out of ourselves just as it does in the minds of the prosecution. It is a gut punch of an ending, and the show does a brilliant job of conveying that anticipation and disappointment. All in all, the series acts as a thrilling and mindful adaptation of the murder trial that swept the nation in a time when racial tension was hotter than it had been in decades. The direction of the series was very gimmicky at times, playing up the drama as much as possible for the sake of compelling television. The camera movement in this series is wildly over the top, the script is bombastic and the performances are exaggerated. The thing is, it all works. The inherent intrigue with the story they are telling, all the mind-blowing revelations and moments of contemplation are brought to life with exceptional detail and we can’t help but be sucked back into this outlandish time in American history. For a limited series courtroom drama/crime show, you couldn’t do much better than this.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is currently available for streaming on Netflix
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