Two years after the Rodney King riots tore Los Angeles apart, a man walking his dog on a quiet night in Brentwood discovers two people who have been stabbed to death. And thus begins “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” which in this first episode makes quick work of showing just how loud things got in the earliest days of the case; covering not just the investigation, but the media frenzy that erupted as soon as O.J. was linked to the murders. From O.J.’s initial not-quite arrest to his hiring of Robert Shapiro to the ensuing build-up to his real arrest, the episode ends with Simpson fleeing the authorities in a white Bronco, heading south with a gun and no real plan.
Star Witness (Best Actor)
Other players are going to get their chance to shine over the course of the series, but given how “American Crime Story” doesn’t make any declarations when it comes to Simpson’s guilt or innocence, Cuba Gooding Jr. has his work cut out for him in depicting the man whose courtroom poker face was once beloved by football (and “Naked Gun”) fans. Fortunately, Gooding is up for it, showing restraint when necessary but reminding us just why he won that Oscar for “Jerry Maguire.” It’s a kinetic performance that might not match with our real memories of O.J. Simpson, but given that he’s meant to be almost an enigma at this stage, Gooding still managed to draw out some real humanity.
There are a few people being depicted in this series who are no longer alive, and while Courtney B. Vance feels more than authentic as Johnnie Cochran, there’s something about Robert Kardashian that doesn’t feel quite so believable. David Schwimmer himself is fine, but Kardashian’s somewhat dopey nice guy vibe is a little tough to believe this week. We may need some more info for him to feel like a complete character.
I Didn’t Know That…
A lot of this episode is devoted to introducing the many players at the center of the action, without necessarily revealing which roles they’ll ultimately end up playing. If the basics of the original trial are fresh in your mind, you might know what fate has in store for Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), but right now he’s just an intriguing guy working in the district attorney’s office…who considers Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) a mentor? When Cochran confronts Darden over an unrelated shooting, pointing out how often black people seem to get shot in the back by the cops, it’s a scene that does a nice job not just of layering the racial politics of the era (and today) but also establishing character moments to come.
The Most ’90s Moment
Nothing like remembering a super obscure 1990s romantic comedy starring America’s favorite couple, Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts! When Robert Shapiro’s wife reveals that they have tickets that night for the premiere of “I Love Trouble,” people probably had one of two reactions: “What?” or “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
Remember, This Really Happened
As sensationalist and gossipy as the action around the Simpson-Goldman murders might have been, one thing “American Crime Story” doesn’t flinch from is that at the end of the day, two people were murdered, and that is always a tragedy. The moment when Nicole’s daughter calls her house line — begging the answering machine for her mother to come home — is nothing short of heartbreaking.
“If the Glove Don’t Fit…” (Best Line)
– Marcia Clark
It’s interesting to watch the moment someone’s life changes forever in this format, which is what gives the offhand way in which Marcia Clark first reacts to the news about the murders such punch. It’s not the last assumption Marcia’s going to make over the course of the trial, more’s the pity.
The Key Takeaway
The irony of the title here is that “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is not here to put O.J. on trial. Theoretically, the show’s relatively neutral on his guilt. Given the evidence collected this week, it’s hard to come away from Episode 1 with anything resembling reasonable doubt as to O.J.’s guilt, but the episode is also all too keen to remind us that this is a story about the human beings whose lives were forever changed by this case. And human beings, sometimes, make mistakes.
Taking these familiar story points and making them feel fresh is one of the things that’s most exciting about “American Crime Story,” second only to watching the cast dig into the material. John Travolta’s work as Robert Shapiro is kind of a love it or hate it proposition (personally, I fall into the category of loving the actual performance, but hating how distracting his make-up is) but Sarah Paulson, Vance and Brown shine as well. This is only our first taste of what’s to come, but with that last shot of the white Bronco weaving down the freeway around unsuspecting motorists, we were hooked.