True crime is an addictive, compelling genre in all mediums of entertainment, be it books, television or film. We were about due for another wave of interest in the subject, and it turns out all it took it was an extremely entertaining, impeccably acted miniseries that managed to generate actual suspense and dramatic impact from a murder trial that pretty much everyone on the planet knows the outcome of. That's what Ryan Murphy delivered with The People v. OJ Simpson, the first in a planned anthology series of American true crime stories, and even if all the subsequent series and spin-offs manage to duplicate even some of this one's success, this will remain the gold standard, especially when it's given the expected shower of Emmy nominations later this summer.
Everyone knows the story, right? It was twenty years ago that OJ Simpson was arrested and tried for murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in Brentwood, California. It was a hugely sensationalized media event, the beginning of wall to wall coverage of tabloid style reality TV, and a major cultural phenomenon that had the whole country glued to the television and gossiping over the details. OJ was a former football player and national celebrity, and the murders took place against the backdrop of a Los Angeles boiling over with racial unrest in the wake of the Rodney King beatings. The underlying tensions of the trial sparked an enormous racial divide in the country, as public opinion of OJ's guilt or innocence lined up firmly by race.
In a way, this soap opera saga that went on for nearly two years was tailor made to become a television series. All the dramatic twists and star players are already written in. We had OJ of course, and his "dream team" of egomaniacal defense lawyers, with the showboating Johnnie Cochran at the center, and Robert Shapiro, F. Lee Bailey and Robert Kardashian along for the ride. On the other side we have the prosecutors, led by the no-nonsense (and unfairly ridiculed for it) Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, also unfairly publicly maligned for being an African-American on the "wrong" side of history. There are dramatic subplots, including the sexist shaming of Clark by the tabloids and the press, the infamous Bronco chase that captivated the nation (dramatized here in just the second episode), the jury sequestered away as inherent prisoners for eight months, and even a will they/won't they romance between Clark and Darden.
It's almost easy in a way. Writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander based the show mostly on Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life: The People v. OJ Simpson, and were gifted with the ability to base several episodes on major incidents that took place in the saga and are bound to inspire flashbacks among those who remember watching all this unfold like it was yesterday. I have to admit, I am not one of those people, as even though I was alive, I was a little too young to pick up more than just media images at the time. From what I can gather, the prism through which this show affects viewers may be measured by what they can actually remember of the events themselves.
So I'll confine myself to the series only, which I can say is addictive, inherently watchable and most of all, superbly performed by what will likely go down as the best TV ensemble of the year. The MVP's of this cast are, in order, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who gives the famed lawyer all the charisma and ego and rabble-rousing energy he was known for, Sarah Paulsen as Clark, terrific in her rigidity and stubbornness and possibly more sympathetic in the end than the real life figure she was based on, and Sterling K. Brown as Darden, who eerily resembles his softspoken counterpart right down to the pronunciation and mannerisms. The three of them hold your attention for the majority of the series and every meaty scene they have as the leads, but they're surrounded by a supporting cast that gives everyone a chance to shine, including David Schwimmer as Kardashian, the duped friend of Simpson who develops doubts over the course of the trial, Nathan Lane, hilarious as the delightfully and unapologetically wicked F. Lee Bailey, and John Travolta, who really camps it up as the eventually sidelined Robert Shapiro, OJ's original defense attorney. Travolta gives what may be the most divisive performance here, but I got a total kick out of him, as the tone of the show veers between seriousness, sensationalism and campiness that matches the intense public obsession with a murder trial that often overlooked the real victims in favor of the celebrity intrigue and tabloid stories surrounding it.
Despite how entertaining and ultimately satisfying it is, the show is plagued by Ryan Murphy's direction, and he just can't stop himself from constantly zooming the camera in and around the actors and sets like he's on a swaying cruise line. Everything about the story was dramatic enough, did we really need those extreme close-ups and distracting camera zooms? And I haven't mentioned OJ himself, who was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the most unfortunate bit of casting on the series. Everyone else is a dead ringer or close to it for the person they are playing- to make such an epic mistake with the title character is a real shame. Cuba looks and sounds nothing like the 6 foot tall football player everyone remembers. Even someone like me, who remembers no details of the trial itself, remembered him, what he looked and sounded like from his indelible public image all those years. Which isn't to say Cuba gives a bad performance, he's actually very convincing as a mentally unstable, borderline sociopathic, somewhat charming man...he just isn't OJ.
Those missteps aside, anyone will enjoy this miniseries for what it is, and the steps it takes to connect all the societal issues the trial brought to the forefront, is begun with the very first images of the Rodney King news footage. In many ways, we are reminded how little has changed with the continuing problems of racism and police misconduct over the last twenty years, but also of how hollow a "payback" victory this verdict was, as there was never any other suspect charged in the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. As the final shot of the last episode makes clear, it was a hollow victory indeed. For everyone.