So said Brad Simpson, an executive producer of “American Crime Story,” at the TCA Winter Press Tour. It may not be the most hopeful quote — no one wants to admit our country’s struggles are “endless” — but it’s one dense with experience, self-awareness and it touches on what’s very much at the heart of FX’s new anthology series: The idea that in a country where all men are (allegedly) created equal, they’re treated as anything but.
Before I get to far in, it’s important to note that “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is actually good. It’s very good, in fact. Through six episodes, it’s on track to be one of the best first seasons of television ever made, especially considering the cultural climate surrounding its release. But before you can believe such a thing about a show focusing on O.J. Simpson — about the trial many viewers watched in real time and the rest know so much about regardless — you have to understand how it can be good, and not just some smutty, gossip-driven grab at recreating well-known events with famous faces. Basically, you have to believe it’s not trashy — in part because of what’s immediately associated with coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, but also what’s associated with an FX series carrying “American” and “Story” in the title.
Step one in this process is understanding who’s behind the show. Despite the business-friendly, franchise-building title that sounds an awful lot like “American Horror Story,” Ryan Murphy actually isn’t the person pulling the strings here. While he does direct and executive produce (quite well, in fact), Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (the writing team behind “Man on the Moon,” “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and more) are its creators, head writers and executive producers. This series’ DNA with “American Horror Story” begins and ends with its title, as Murphy’s penchant for pop culture and melodrama is eradicated and the casting connections seem, if not coincidental, then fortuitous.
Which leads us to what is, quite frankly, the definition of an all-star cast. You’ve got your big names like John Travolta, the two-time Oscar nominee who dives head first into the self-indulgent shoes of defense attorney Robert Shapiro. Travolta will certainly draw attention for his physical transformation as well as his unique accent — some for the worse but hopefully more for the better — as he sells the character internally as much as he does externally. But anyone bothered by his turn will certainly be enamored by breakouts Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance as assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden and the famous defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, respectively. There’s nothing stunt-like in their casting, and both men bring a gripping degree of humanity to their characters. Similar praise can be heaped on David Schwimmer — a big “sitcom” name still trying to reinvent himself as a dramatic actor in the public eye — for his emotional portrayal of Robert Kardashian, a man very much at the moral center of our story who’s torn between allegiance and evidence.
And then there’s Cuba Gooding Jr. as “The Juice” himself. Gooding’s own infamous professional trajectory — from Oscar glory to movie-of-the-week fare — doesn’t exactly parallel the tragedies in Simpson’s life, but both should understand what it’s like to fall from the limelight in a very public way. Here, Gooding plays another football star capable of charming anyone at a moment’s notice. But unlike in “Jerry Maguire,” this O.J. is far from the story’s protagonist. He’s not the enemy, either. Instead, he’s the inciting incident; not so much a person as “The Juice.” He pushes the other characters to action, and Gooding plays O.J. without a trace of judgment, but as a deeply conflicted, deeply troubled former star.
In this decision lies the foundation of the entire series. “The People V. O.J. Simpson” isn’t about establishing whether or not O.J. was innocent or guilty. This isn’t a “true crime” series in the vein of “Making a Murderer” or “The Jinx” that asks you, overtly or otherwise, to draw your own conclusion about the man behind bars. Alexander and Karaszewski’s series is focused on understanding the circumstances in which the verdict came about, with the 20/20 hindsight of time, using a story familiar to us all to illustrate how history is so keen on repeating itself. By adopting this case as a substitute for the racial tensions plaguing America today, objective truths can be discovered and subjective opinions can be better understood. We see, first-hand, how issues of racism, fame, media bias, sexism and more longstanding American issues individually affect very real people.
Empathy plays a big part in the first six episodes (which were provided for critics to review), as not one character is summed up by one thing. How true or untrue these people are depicted isn’t a concern, for one, because this is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book, “The Run of His Life” (which was culled from Toobin’s analysis of the case for The New Yorker), but more importantly because it’s not the truth that matters here. It’s about the discussion derived from these living, breathing human beings. From “the dream team” of lawyers who decided to make a murder investigation about race (because, arguably, it was) to the sexist treatment of prosecutor Marcia Clarke (Sarah Paulson, knocking yet another demanding part out of the park), “American Crime Story” doesn’t take anything for granted. It lays out its case in carefully constructed segments focusing on key players in the trial and letting moral assessments exist in shades of gray.
So far, “American Crime Story” has shown a great deal of restraint. Some will point to scenes featuring young Khloe and Kim Kardashian as nonessential and exploitative, but I’d argue they show a keen level of awareness — just like the rest and best parts of the show. Everyone behind “The People V. O.J. Simpson” seems to recognize why viewers would be instinctually drawn to the series, and, rather than scolding them for it, they provide just enough to reward their guilty attraction without taking away from the story the creators wanted to tell. Famous scenes like the Bronco chase are recreated, yes, but the suspense never lies in, “What will happen next?” Instead, it’s based in understanding the how and the why; in gaining insight into a picture painted by all participants, with each given equal weight. By doing what the courts could not, they’ve not only made the best version of this story, but a better version than anyone could have imagined going in.
As the conversation rages on, “The People V. O.J. Simpson” should serve as an essential voice in understanding more than we knew before. And that’s quite an accomplishment by itself.