We always knew where this story was headed: The name of the case is in the title, after all. But this series was always about more than what happened in the courtroom. So tonight’s finale does dig into the closing statements and jury deliberations, but that’s only the first half of the episode. Once O.J. Simpson is declared not guilty, it’s time to dig into the immediate aftermath of the case — the prosecution’s tear-soaked press conference, President Clinton’s acknowledgment that there were real issues at play in this case and, most importantly, O.J.’s re-entry into society. While O.J. is a free man, he’s ostracized from his former life, and his victory party isn’t attended by many of the people he once considered friends, including Robert Kardashian, who fully severs his friendship with the man. In the end, O.J. finds himself alone, and we look back at all the real players involved in this case and how it shaped their lives for decades to come.
Star Witness (Best Actor)
Truth: Before this episode, Cuba Gooding Jr. was probably the performer who had impressed me the least on a week-to-week basis, mostly because of the show’s aversion to actually taking a stand on O.J.’s guilt or innocence. Gooding simply didn’t have a lot to work with, and — unlike other principal players — wasn’t given a lot of screen time to himself.
That changed this week. In fact, the entire emotional climax of the series rested in large part on his ability to carry the scenes following his release. And in those silent moments of contemplation and realization, Gooding really came to life. He and Vance will be competing as Lead Actors at this year’s Emmys, and, for weeks, Vance has been considered the prohibitive favorite. “The Verdict” might have leveled the playing field, though. There’s just something so perfectly clueless, yet self-conscious, about O.J. in these scenes. It makes the show’s avoidance of the one major mystery at its core work.
“American Crime Story’s” trickiest gambit was always the idea that the producers technically refused to take a position on Simpson’s guilt or innocence, and here, at the end, that decision does sit a little awkwardly with us. Especially since, in those final scenes with Gooding, his guilt feels palpable, even as he revels in his freedom. Did anyone, after watching all 10 episodes of “American Crime Story,” come away thinking that O.J. Simpson was definitely innocent? I certainly didn’t.
“On the Air, On the Radio…”
“Feeling Good” might be my favorite song choice of the entire series, and not just because it’s a beautiful song but because of the way it was used. Nina Simone’s beautiful a capella introduction, running under Marcia and Chris’s final moments together, was as soulful as ever but faded away just before the big bold brass moments kicked in. Without those beats, and without the lyrics “And I’m feelin’ good,” “Feeling Good” is no longer a song of triumph and joy. It’s a song about longing. And that’s all too apt for this series.
Remember, This Really Happened
The O.J. verdict was one of those, “Where were you?” moments that come on so rarely in our society, and the show’s use of archival footage — something in general that “American Crime Story” hasn’t delved into too much — did have a real impact in depicting the way the world exploded that day. Mixing fact and fiction like never before, juxtaposing different reactions with some slick use of split-screen, the sequence manages to capture just how raw and real the verdict was. Given how many adults have a living memory of the verdict — Business Insider suggests that somewhere between 95 million to 150 million people watched it live — nailing that moment was always going to be essential to the show’s success. Some creators might have dodged it entirely, but Murphy and company stuck the landing.
The Most ’90s Moment
That said, oh wow those were some fashions right there. “American Crime Story” wasn’t too rough on the eyes when it came to interpreting ’90s fashion, but the actual reality of what we were all wearing back then — woof.
“If the Glove Don’t Fit…” (Best Line)
– Robert Shapiro
“This isn’t some civil rights milestone. You haven’t changed anything for
black people here — unless you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood.”
– Christopher Darden
I’m picking two lines this week, to represent the two different parts that this episode breaks into. Shapiro’s bitter quip about how short the jury deliberations were captured the extreme irony of how the case concluded (though I’m also fond of Lance Ito’s blunt “Are you shitting me?”). Meanwhile, the way Darden confronted Johnnie Cochran over the real impact of the Simpson trial left a mark. Cochran might, in the next scene, have taken President Clinton’s speech on television as a sign that their story was “out of the shadows,” but Darden’s point is the more lasting one, as we keep seeing year after year.
The Key Takeaway
Everyone’s lives were forever altered by the trial, to be sure, but in those final moments of “The Verdict,” with the expected but still welcome title cards revealing what came next for the major players in the case, the full scope of the case’s impact is revealed.
For more on this, once you’ve finished reading this review, you have got to read Dominic Dunne’s final dispatch from the O.J. Simpson beat for Vanity Fair. It is a rich, detail-laden and human chronicle of the aftermath that touches on much of what’s hinted at in this episode (including the fact that O.J. was, in fact, no longer welcome at the Riviera Country Club following the trial).
I would pay an awful lot of money for an audiobook edition of Robert Morse reading these essays out loud, but FX/Vanity Fair, you can have that idea for free.
There’s a fascinating question inspired by the fact that “American Crime Story” is planned as an anthology series: If you take any historical event and throw a ton of talent and money at depicting it, will you get this sort of result? FX probably hopes so, considering the current plans for another season framed around the Hurricane Katrina disaster, but the way showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski mined so many rich details out of this case makes “The People v. O.J. Simpson” feel somewhat singular, as television achievements go. It’s early in the year, but one of 2016’s major benchmarks has been set.
Coming soon from FX…