American Crime Story – Season 1: The People v. O.J. Simpson

I realize that I am very late to the game with this review. American Crime Story aired over a year ago, but I just now was able to watch it. Partially my delay was due to the fact that I wasn’t so sure I wanted to watch it in the first place. Like most citizens of the United States, it feels like I know everything surrounding O.J. Simpson and the infamous case. It was ubiquitous when it happened, but it never really felt like it left the social consciousness. Whether it was the former athlete’s other crimes, that horrific trash of a book he published, or the constant stream of jokes and references (even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt paid homage in its first season), the story has been inescapable for twenty years now. But ACS started getting really great reviews. Then came the Emmys, and SAGs, and Golden Globes – and the show kept getting record number of nominations, winning several trophies at each ceremony. It grew harder and harder to ignore the phenomenon and pretend like I could stay away from the show, so I finally decided to watch it, and much to my surprise, I am very glad I did!

I am not going to discuss the plot in this review, everyone knows it, and everyone knows how it ends. Broncos, the jury, the media hoopla… it’s all there! I imagine there are those out there who are too young to remember the events, but the show does a really good job with it all, so I will bypass that altogether and shift my focus elsewhere. I firstly want to commend the pacing of the show. Each episode is earned and makes sense. Too often Ryan Murphy’s shows tend to be all over the place, continuity and plot are faraway concepts he doesn’t seem to care too much about, but things are different here. Whether it’s an episode focused entirely on the jury (from selection to the chaos after months of seclusion), or an episode focused on O.J.’s breakdown and the infamous Bronco car chase, the show knows very well what it’s doing, and the focus and attention are truly masterful. The direction is overall minimal and uninvasive, so there really isn’t much to say there. I enjoyed a few elements of found footage, and also the attempt to recreate some shots as if they were actually broadcasts of the court proceedings, that was quite an interesting perspective and stylistic choice, but mostly it’s straightforward television camera work and angles.

Obviously the acting and star caliber are the true focuses here. The work done by several performances is truly remarkable and what this show is really all about. I know I am joining a chorus of thousands when I say that Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) is the reason these 10 episodes are so compellingly watchable and good. The actress has been putting in great work for years now, and her partnership with Ryan Murphy has finally reached its peak with ACS. The amount of humanity, pathos, and redemption she gives Marcia Clark is amazing and awe inspiring. Clark had been the humiliated butt of America’s jokes for the entire duration of the case. The torture from the media was unrelenting, and it had become easy to forget the humanity of the woman behind the infamous haircuts. No longer is that the case. Paulson has won pretty much every award possible for this performance, deservedly so. She is the real star of the show, and has cemented herself as one of the most formidable actresses working today. But she’s not the only one doing great work on this show. Sterling K. Brown (This Is Us) has a star making turn as Christopher Darden, Clark’s second chair. The actor, who I had never seen before, impressed me with his gravitas and strength. His Emmy win is an obvious encouragement and approval, which hopefully will result in many years of work to come. I also really enjoyed Courtney B. Vance (The Preacher’s Wife) as Johnnie Cochran. The actor was able to balance the defense attorney’s showboating personality with a betrayal of insecurity and oppression due to the color of his skin which I really didn’t expect. It was so nice to see someone who has been working hard for so many years finally get his due. No longer will he be known simply as Angela Bassett’s husband, and his Emmy win proves this. Lastly I need to express how impressed I was with David Schwimmer. Although Friends is by far my favorite sitcom of all time, Ross Gellar was my least favorite character on the show, and thus Schwimmer has been an actor I’ve dismissed in the years since the show went off the air. Now he is reappearing playing a role of the person whose very existence is to blame for our current state of Kardashian assault on all goodness and morality, the role could have easily gotten away from him. Instead Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian with an understated desperation, a need to believe his friend and client, a helpless weakness – resulting in a layered and complex character I simply wasn’t expecting. He did a really good job.

Who doesn’t impress? John Travolta makes literally no sense as Robert Shapiro. He neither looks nor sounds like the lawyer, he is wooden and does something very strange with his face and lips throughout… I simply counted the minutes until he would stop appearing on camera. Nathan Lane is a little too campy as one of the members of the defense team, but he doesn’t take up too much space, so mostly he’s just forgettable. Lastly, by no fault of his own really other than taking the part in the first place, I simply just don’t get why Cuba Gooding Jr. was chosen to play O.J. Simpson. The actor looks nothing like O.J., sounds nothing like him: O.J.’s voice was loud, deep, and booming, while Gooding Jr.’s is high, always sounds hoarse, and screeches whenever the actor attempts to scream or yell. Furthermore, at 5’10” the actor is considerably shorter than the man he played, who was over 6 feet tall. Gooding Jr. is a capable actor with an Oscar to prove it, I simply don’t see what went into the decision to cast him in this role though. The entire time I kept wondering how Idris Elba or Boris Kodjoe might have played the role.

The weaknesses are far outweighed by the strengths of the series, though. I am excited to see what happens in future seasons. The next two center on the Versace murder and on Hurricane Katrina, both stories that, if told well, could be truly compelling and exciting television. I am on board and optimistic, because The People v. O.J. Simpson made a tired story fresh and new again, and that is so hard to do, and yet felt effortless and entertaining. What more could we ask for?

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