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How ‘American Crime Story’ Explains Our Obsession with the O.J. Simpson Trial

How 'American Crime Story' Explains Our Obsession with the O.J. Simpson Trial

“Juice” (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) remains as
unfathomable as ever in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
He flashes his temper — at the media, opposing counsel, the world — and sulks
like a child, pleads and dissembles and sobs, but FX’s new series never cracks the
star athlete’s surface, leaving the man behind the persona untouched. He is, as
if to mimic his largely silent role in the defining trial of the television
era, the void at the eye of the hurricane, and it’s this apparent flaw in the series’
design that turns out to be the source of its brilliance. Recognizing that we
may never know for certain what happened in Brentwood on the night of June 12,
1994, “American Crime Story” focuses on the forces that have shaped
our obsession with O.J. ever since: It’s an American spectacle.

READ MORE: “The Impressive Evolution of ‘American Crime'”

From its swirl of the infamous (the white Bronco), the
memorable (the bloody glove), and the then-unknown (the Kardashian clan), the
series recreates the circumstances of the case not to solve it, exactly, but to press the bruises and soft
spots the trial exposed. Combining issues of race, class, gender, and celebrity
with the rise of cable news and the residue of the L.A. riots, The People v. O.J. Simpson captured the
public imagination by seeming to reproduce whatever assumptions one brought to
it. No matter where you stood, “American Crime Story” suggests, the
case became a grim simulacrum of the nation as a whole.

With darkly funny glimpses of Faye Resnick (Connie Britton),
Kato Kaelin (Billy Magnussen), and Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi), the series
satirizes the media frenzy that briefly made such figures household names —
“Listen,” Kaelin protests under police questioning, “I’m not,
like, an official person” — but writers Scott Alexander and Larry
Karaszewski resist the temptation to caricature the case and its sprawling network
of participants. In fact, “American Crime Story” is surprisingly precise,
even intimate, filtering the trial’s sociopolitical implications through the
personal experiences of two key players: defense attorney Johnnie Cochran
(Courtney B. Vance) and prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson).

Far from exploitative, the series constructs these
connections with care, building its case, as it were, by fleshing out characters
we came to know only through tabloid spreads, “tell-all” books, and
nightly installments of “Hard Copy.” Telegraphing this structuring
principle in a series of striking juxtapositions — Clark, frank and tenacious,
serves her children cereal in a cramped kitchen, for instance, while Cochran,
dapper and confident, surveys a color-coordinated rainbow of options in a
gleaming walk-in closet — “American Crime Story” treats its
protagonists’ distinct perspectives as contingent, and in the process
rediscovers the human texture in a tale long since sanded down into myth.  

On the strength of Vance and Paulson’s extraordinary
performances — if either fails to receive an Emmy nomination come summer, the
TV Academy should be disbanded — the series dramatizes the major and minor
slights directed at Cochran and Clark, outsiders both, to the point that
prejudice itself becomes a supporting character. Cochran bristles at the idea,
brought up by Robert Shapiro (an off-putting John Travolta, caked with enough
makeup to reprise his role in “Hairspray”), that only Cochran
“can communicate with the downtown jury”; Clark is pained to hear a
focus group describe her as a “strident,” “know-it-all”
“bitch.” These affronts, in two episodes helmed by Anthony Hemingway,
throw each character’s initial reaction to the case into sharp relief. Both
Cochran’s instinct — that O.J.’s been railroaded — and Clark’s — that the
system failed Nicole Brown Simpson, despite a litany of reported abuses at the
hands of her ex-husband — derive from firsthand knowledge of what happens to
women and people of color who speak out of turn.

When “American Crime Story” hits pay dirt, this
collision of the particular and the general courts, sparks, and catches fire,
fueled by the realization that the wounds uncovered by The People v. O.J. Simpson have yet to heal. In the flashback that
opens “The Race Card,” cunningly directed by John Singleton, telling
close-ups — a baton in a holster, a hand on a gun — and cutaways to gawking
passersby crystallize both the insidious work of racism and the humiliation it
causes Cochran. Later, the camera peers down a long table of white guests at a
dinner party hosted by Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse), their gossipy discussion
of the trial suddenly silenced by the entry of his black servants. Though
Singleton conveys the point most forcefully, the entire series replicates this
“Rashomon” effect. Its beating heart is not the crime but the stories
that sprouted up around it, each one dependent on the position of the teller.

READ MORE: “The Near-Perfect First Season of ‘Glee'”

By the time “American Crime Story” arrives at
“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” the finest TV episode directed by Ryan
Murphy since the pilot of “Glee,” the profusion of rich, engrossing
detail has laid the groundwork for the series to widen its scope without losing
its momentum, and the hour’s galvanizing climax is startling even if you know
it’s coming. With feverish camerawork, Murphy — elaborating on a motif that runs
through the first five episodes, with homes, offices, waiting rooms, and bars
full of people watching press conferences, car chases, and court proceedings on
live TV — recaptures the grotesque allure of the case, which was to lay bare in
real time that which popular culture too often obscures. “Spectacle”
comes from the Latin for “public show,” and The People v. O.J. Simpson was indeed that, but the word’s
etymology begins with specere,
“to look.” The genius of “American Crime Story” is to reframe
this aspect of the trial as the primary reason for our fascination with it, and
then to force us to see the case anew, through eyes that aren’t our own.

“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J.
Simpson” premieres Tuesday, February 2 at 10pm on FX.

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