It could have been a disaster: an exploitative ratings grab, a glorified Lifetime movie full of stunt casting, a wallow in a scandalous murder that might have filled tabloid columns two decades ago but had little impact on the world today. But for those who put aside those preconceived notions and tuned in, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” the 10-part miniseries recreation of the trial of football and movie star O.J. Simpson for the murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, was a triumphant, multi-faceted, novelistic, utterly relevant take on the story with about a dozen of the best performances you’ll see on television this year (not to mention a ratings smash and a likely Emmys juggernaut).
I’ll be honest here: I was sort of dreading the series in advance, and only tuned in because the advance reviews had been so strong. I was feeling a bit true-crime-d out, plus I’ve always associated the O.J. case with supermarket-tabloid manna. But more than anything, my cause for concern was producer Ryan Murphy. While the polymath industry bigwig (who executive-produced the show and helmed four of the 10 episodes, including the first and last) has his fans, I’ve found most of his work, from the dire movie “Running With Scissors” and early soap “Nip/Tuck,” to his fellow FX juggernaut “American Horror Story,” essentially unbearable to watch in their overblown kitschiness and willingness to sacrifice tonal consistency or coherence in the pursuit of something, anything, to grab your attention.
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But we’re all capable of being surprised, and I quickly became hooked on ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson.’ And though many people deserve credit for the show’s success — most notably showrunners and directors Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and the rest of their writing team — I have to say that by the end, I didn’t see Murphy and his particular peccadilloes as a hindrance, but actually an advantage to the show.
The list of reasons the show came off so well is a long one. Alexander and Karaszewski are among the few who’ve made the biopic genre palatable, thanks to notable credits on films like “Ed Wood,” “The People Vs. Larry Flynt” and “Man On The Moon,” and they brought most of the virtues of their big-screen work — finely honed characters, an ability to bring together clashing tones, an eye for quirky detail — to this project. Their all-star writer’s room — D.V. DeVincentis, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky, Joe Robert Cole — delivered in a big way, too, with quotable, gripping and characterful writing throughout the show.
Together, they used O.J.’s story not to rake over old details, but to show how it helped shape the always-on, famous-at-any-cost reality-TV culture we live in today, and remind us how little things have changed from the mid-1990s, drawing obvious parallels between the racism of the L.A.P.D. and recent injustices (the show is a “10 hour trailer for Black Lives Matter,” series consultant Jeffrey Toobin told The Hollywood Reporter), and demonstrating the sexism that powerful women like Marcia Clark (who only a year ago was savagely parodied by Tina Fey in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” and now could have her reputation largely restored) faced, a misogyny echoed in the way many treat Hillary Clinton, among others, now.
In contrast to many shows on streaming services, which are glacially paced and more focused in serving a macro-story across the season than individual ones (looking at you, “Bloodline” and “Daredevil”), ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ also made great use of the actual form of a TV series. While never letting the narrative of the trial slip away, each episode shifted the focus slightly, letting a different character take the spotlight, or playing up a theme in a subtle way. In fact, it arguably played better unfolding week-by-week than it would have through a binge-watch, letting each episode feel as though viewing the case from a slightly different angle, rather than one domino in a run.
And then there’s that killer cast. Much of the praise, particularly after her showcase episode “Marcia Marcia Marcia,” was reserved for Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. A veteran of Murphy’s ‘American Horror Story’ rep company, and an actress who’s shone consistently in the background of late (in “Carol” and “12 Years A Slave” in particular), Paulson clearly relished a leading role, and was completely immaculate throughout, making the woman behind the jheri curls entirely sympathetic without ever quite letting her off the hook (her blinkered discarding of Chris Darden’s opinion about Mark Fuhrman was positively infuriating).
But really, everyone here was outstanding: relative unknown Sterling K. Brown as Darden, one of the show’s most complex yet sympathetic figures; Cuba Gooding Jr eternally self-regarding as Simpson, Courtney B. Vance explosive and meticulous as Johnnie Cochran, Nathan Lane as a sly F. Lee Bailey, Kenneth Choi both authoritative and media-hungry as Judge Ito, Bruce Greenwood being typically awesomely Bruce Greenwoodish as D.A. Gil Garcetti, to name but a few.
I had reservations in the early going, and they were mostly connected to my fears over Murphy’s involvement, and a level of unsubtle kitschiness that I’d been concerned about. The direction of the first episode was hyperactive, all skewed angles and crash zooms. The tone could lurch wildly. Occasionally the writing was heavy-handed (see the early appearances of the Kardashian children, for instance), and the soundtrack’s needle-drops arrived with a clanging obviousness, such as using “I Shall Be Released” as O.J. flees in the Bronco at the end of the pilot. And the show’s most famous actors, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, seemed to be classic Murphy stunt-casting, sticking out like sore thumbs. But over the course of the series, I came to make peace with the more over-the-top elements, and acknowledge that the show wouldn’t reach the heights it does without them.
“What was most important to us was to get across our tone. We try to balance social observation, high drama, terrible tragedy, and absurd comedy. It’s true to life and life is complex, and we always said, ‘Why do movies have to be only a comedy or only a drama?,’” Scott Alexander told Vulture a few weeks into the show. And he’s right: The O.J. case was a bonkers mix of high drama and ludicrousness (to its credit, and unlike some true-crime dramas, it also by the end had made sure that the victims weren’t forgotten, ending on photos of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman), of a kind that could never be well served with a more sober, “Spotlight”-style approach.
The trial was, in many ways, a circus. And the heightened direction (carried on, though pleasingly toned down, in later episodes by Murphy, Anthony Hemingway and John Singleton), the slightly manic tonal lurches, and the broad scope — which Alexander compared in The Daily Beast to Robert Altman’s “Nashville” — actually proved to be sort of a perfect fit. For instance, Travolta was giving a broad, artificial performance, one that didn’t resemble the real Robert Shapiro. But the broadness, the artificiality, the fragile ego somehow captured him better than a performance with greater verisimilitude could.
And sometimes, the moments that seemed obvious proved to be subversive. The soundtrack picks might have been overt (“Fight The Power,” “Kiss From A Rose”), but they also had a infectious populism, and occasionally were used in unexpected ways. The finale, for instance, played out the final conversation between Clark and Darden over the opening minutes of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” but cut away to commercials before the title words and the drop, as it were, denying the viewers satisfaction and landing them in the same emotional state as the two prosecutors.
Similarly, Schwimmer’s casting as Kardashian seemed initially like a real misstep — a distracting move that just made it feel like Ross Geller had wandered onto the set. But while Schwimmer’s innately goofy presence at first felt like it was the product of a gamble that didn’t pay off, Kardashian gradually proved himself to be the show’s conscience. If he resembled a sort of eternally loyal bloodhound, that may have been deliberate: Kardashian, in the show’s conception, was a decent man who considered loyalty and trust among friends to be the highest virtue, and crumbled utterly as the evidence turned him against Simpson. Schwimmer’s sad eyes (and his moving breakdown scene with Selma Blair’s Kris Jenner) became an unexpected boon to the show in its end game.
Ultimately, Murphy’s particular blend of star-studded, heightened tragicomedy turned out to be the right mix for the O.J. trial. Which doesn’t mean that concoction will work in the next installment of “American Crime Story.” The producers have already revealed that the next season will be focused on Hurricane Katrina, and while that promises to tap into some of the same themes of race and class that ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ dealt with, Alexander and Karaszewski won’t be around for the second run, and a certain campiness will sit less happily in a story about a natural disaster that killed over a thousand people. But, as demonstrated above, I’ve been wrong before, and I’m more than willing to see what Murphy cooks up next time.