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How to Build a Contender: The Winning Formula for ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’

How to Build a Contender: The Winning Formula for 'The People v. O.J. Simpson'

Tuesday night marks the much-anticipated finale of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — the first season of Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, “American Crime Story,” which has set a frighteningly high standard for future entries — and even though everyone watching knows the verdict of the featured trial, that knowledge does little to dampen the curiosity or expectations surrounding the episode. Part, if not most, of that longing is due to the impeccable execution of a story audiences are, admittedly, overly familiar with, but a significant aspect of why viewers keep tuning in has been instilled in them since before shooting even began. Imagine the “why” as insurance: a built-in safety net in case the production went awry.

READ MORE: How ‘American Crime Story’ Changed Scene-Stealing Sterling K. Brown’s Mind About O.J. Simpson

In greenlighting this expansive tentpole from Ryan Murphy, FX executives, the series’ showrunners, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson, and key crew members made very specific, very self-aware and very, very smart moves to ensure high awareness and maximize the potential of this project. Not only did they help guarantee the show would be the best version of itself, but the following decisions made “The People v. O.J. Simpson” an instant awards contender before it even aired. Throw in rave reviews across the board, and, suddenly, the anthology series has turned into an absolute Emmys monster. Here’s how they built the beast:

Cast Famous Faces

This first step may be the most obvious, but it’s nonetheless necessary. Hiring big names right off the bat ensures early headlines, early buzz and early awareness. Sure, the title helps — focusing on a case no one is soon to forget — but getting big names like John Travolta and David Schwimmer makes sure people perk up when casting news hits. It also draws in the respective actors’ fan bases as well as a general audience who sees the overall cast as strong. Someone as widely respected as Ryan Murphy certainly adds an allure to any project, and the connections made over the years by executive producers and showrunners Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson proved essential, as well.

But those are examples of tried and true Hollywood techniques — nonetheless valuable, but not as innovative as some key other moves made by these producers. Putting Schwimmer in Robert Kardashian’s shoes also pulls double duty, as the “Friends” star (who isn’t seen all that often in front of the camera, let alone on TV) certainly will draw an audience by himself, but the character’s last name also generates discussion of the famous Kardashian family. “Who’s Robert Kardashian?” “Is he part of that Kardashian family?” “Will we see Kim and Khloe on the show?” All these questions and more were kicked around the internet and answered before the series premiered, helping “The People v. O.J. Simpson” get as much attention as possible from as many demographics as it could.

In terms of awards, the famous faces helped add the needed degree of “prestige” to a project that could have been seen as sleazy from Day 1. The O.J. Simpson trial has been examined and reexamined by virtually everyone involved (and beyond), to the point where the public perception surrounding it is somewhat tawdry. FX knew it had to change the conversation if the series was going to be taken as serious as it was written, and they pulled it off. The big name stars helped both before and after the episodes rolled out, adding gravitas from the second their names were added to the cast list, and later solidifying the series’ reputation with solid turns.

READ MORE: John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance on the Love Affairs in ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ That Did and Should Have Happened

…But Make Sure You’ve Got Great Actors in Every Part

Of course, you can’t just have stars. You have to have actors. Schwimmer and Travolta certainly did their part for the series, but most of the rave reviews are arriving for three lesser known thespians. Sarah Paulson has already proven herself as an awards darling thanks to Murphy’s first anthology series, “American Horror Story,” while Sterling K. Brown and Courtney B. Vance have skyrocketed to prominence thanks to their magnificent performances in “ACS.” Paulson could arguably double as a star and a thespian, but knowing you’ve got one guaranteed barnburner of a performance certainly put some minds at ease in the FX offices. After all, you never know exactly how an actor will perform, but Paulson is as close to a guaranteed thing as you can get.

Brown and Vance, meanwhile, have been reliable character actors who fit into their lawyers’ suits too perfectly to ignore. They look the parts, but their talent is undeniable, as well. They’ve helped amp up the prestige factor as “discoveries” throughout the season, extending the conversation beyond whether or not big names like Travolta and Gooding are in top form, and letting critics and audiences alike get to know them through tremendous turns. There were no guarantees, but by avoiding a splashy, distracting casting in such prominent roles, FX made an informed and calculated call with these key choices. They then proceeded to fill the rest of the slots with top shelf talent like Nathan Lane, Connie Britton and Selma Blair; all stars in their own right who added juice to the overall cast and ensured intrigue in some integral side stories.

[It should be noted that Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy are credited for casting the series, and the show’s main cast came together thanks to the tireless and wise efforts of Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. The FX brass also had a say during the process, but much respect to this fine trio for their impeccable work both in finding famous faces for the right roles and discovering diamonds in the rough elsewhere.]

READ MORE: ‘American Crime Story’ Star Sarah Paulson on the Everyday Sexism That Powered Her Marcia Clark Obsession

A Comeback Story Couldn’t Hurt

The casting of O.J. Simpson himself was obviously a huge decision. The fate of the series relied on this performance being, at the very least, acceptable. As long as it wasn’t distracting, the real focus — the effect of Simpson’s trial on everyone involved — could still shine through. So it was a bit of a gamble to cast Cuba Gooding Jr.; an Oscar winner, yes, but one who had fallen to the bottom of the barrel before this role came his way. Be it his small roles in “The Butler” and “Selma,” or a general belief the “Jerry Maguire” star still had some of that magic in him, Gooding got his shot, and he made the most of it.

In late March, FX announced it would be pushing Gooding as lead actor alongside Courtney B. Vance, and while the actor behind the titular Simpson may seem to have an edge on his lawyer in terms of star power, early predictions favor Vance to land a nomination (and possibly a win). Still, Gooding’s comeback story is all but complete with this role. He can hit the campaign trail with pride in both himself and the series after a layered, emotionally tumultuous turn. Plus, he can talk up his quick rise to the Oscars stage, his slow fall from it and his recent resurgence without any exaggeration needed. For prestige projects, he’s an attractive actor again, and he’s got O.J. — and those casting directors — to thank.

Structure is Key to Success

As presumptuous as it may seem to discuss this now, FX executives were probably talking about it months if not years back: winning. After all, nominations are great, but people mainly remember who brings home the gold. So how does an anthology series like “American Crime Story” set itself up to win in the end? It all comes down to structure.

At the Emmys, performers don’t win for a season of television. They win for an episode. Knowing it’s somewhat unreasonable for TV Academy voters to watch every episode of every season nominated each year, Emmy rules stipulate that a nominated actor must submit one episode as an example of his or her work. So having an addictive, well-known and respected series is certainly vital in getting your foot in the door, it’s key to have one great example of an actor’s talent if you want to win.

This process is not one to be taken lightly, as many voters simply don’t have time to watch everything required of them and many attribute the episode selections for specific wins throughout Emmys history. Take, for instance, Jeff Daniels’ upset of Bryan Cranston and Jon Hamm in 2013. Sure, Cranston had already won three trophies and voters knew he would be eligible one more year before “Breaking Bad” wrapped. And yes, love for “Mad Men” was on the decline at the TV Academy by its sixth season. But “The Newsroom” did not receive a lot of love from the TV Academy, earning nods only for Daniels, Jane Fonda and title design in three years. It also wasn’t exactly a critical darling by the end of its first season, but most people would agree it had a damn fine first episode. Some may even argue that Daniels’ speech in the opening scene was peak “Newsroom.” So it should come as no surprise what episode won Daniels his trophy (one that’s well-deserved, of course).

READ MORE: Review: ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ Episode 9 ‘Manna From Heaven’ Plays the Tapes

The structure of anthology series, in general, is helpful in this regard, as voters don’t have to worry about keeping up with season after season of plot. Instead, they can jump into a new season and be fully informed as to what’s going on. But “The People v. O.J. Simpson” takes things one step further. By shifting focus between characters as the season progresses, it sets itself up beautifully to submit specific episodes for consideration once the inevitable nominations are finalized. For instance, John Travolta is much more prominent in early episodes, so they could submit “The Dream Team” (Episode 3) if he gets nominated for his turn as Robert Shapiro. So is David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, who has perhaps his most moving scene in “The Run of His Life” (Episode 2), when he has to talk Simpson out of killing himself (and later tells the family that he actually did it). Johnnie Cochran is most impactful in later episodes, especially “The Race Card” (Episode 5), which could land Vance his trophy. Paulson actually got an episode named after her character, and “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” (Episode 6) does not disappoint.

This could work to the series’ advantage in a number of ways. More episodes being seen is always good for a show with this great of a reputation, so FX could submit six other episodes —ones not submitted for the nominated actors — once “The People v. O.J. Simpson” earns a nod for Outstanding Limited Series. That would ensure almost all — if not all — of the series is viewed by voters who will decide the winner for overall series. Or, FX could double down on its best episodes and ensure voters see the best work of everyone nominated, overlapping submitted episodes and trusting the quality will help them win the series’ trophy. Either way, by structuring the season with spotlights on various performers, the writers of “American Crime Story” have strengthened its odds for a strong overall run.

More Stories, More Angles = A Longer, Better Campaign

To go along with that thought, if you’re competing in more than one category with more than one focal point, you’re better off, as well. In addition to the possibility for more awards overall (obviously), it also means you have more people making the case for your series. If Vance, Paulson, Gooding, Travolta, and Schwimmer are all contenders, they can cover various campaign events and discuss topics relevant to their characters. If they all get nominated, the conversation can be stretched out even longer. Vance can attend Academy screenings and talk about the series’ discussion of race. Paulson can discuss the sexism inflicted on her character in various interviews. Schwimmer can talk about the celebrity culture overwhelming our country. And they all can talk about just how good “The People v. O.J. Simpson” actually is.

Variety not only helps the series appeal to a broader audience, but it helps keep the series topical throughout a lengthy campaign. In case you can’t tell by the fact we’re talking about the Emmys six months before the ceremony, this is one long campaign season. So if “The People v. O.J. Simpson” can grab new headlines by shifting the topic of conversation to something fresh every month (or every week as we get closer to the nominations), it should help keep people talking about the show positively, and not nitpicking issues that can pop up when one thing is talked about for too long.

Overall, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is in a great position for the Emmys. The reviews and general adulation have certainly helped, but they might feel like cake to a network that’s known all along this series would become a monster.

READ MORE: Why ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Finale Matters Even Though We Know the Verdict

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