The O.J. Simpson murder trial was a circus; most of us would agree that much is true. An unending barrage of oddities, it left America with a hangover and a bad taste in its mouth, to the degree that the trial mostly disappeared from pop culture after it concluded in 1995. (There was one CBS miniseries dramatization in 2000, but nobody watched.)
So the last thing we should want is a 10-part TV series about the trial — especially one that comes from the mind of Ryan Murphy, the mad carnival barker behind such glittering TV pop catastrophes as Glee and American Horror Story. Such a project holds all the potential of turning the circus into a whirling spaceship, floating off into the sky before it finally explodes.
But The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, debuting on FX on Tuesday, February 2, is actually good. In some episodes, it's really good, and even when not everything clicks, it's relentlessly addictive, returning the primacy to a story that was ceded to the tabloids long ago. The miniseries digs deeper than you'd expect, poking at the messy intersections of race, gender, and class that so much TV still shies away from, and it will remind you, time and again, of bits and pieces of the trial you'd completely forgotten about.
Perhaps the best argument in its favor is this: The series understands the tension that underlies every interaction between black Americans and the police — but it's also deeply aware of the irony that the one man who was able to use that fact to earn acquittal in a criminal case almost certainly committed the crime he was accused of.
Here are five things that make The People vs. O.J. Simpson the best new show of the winter.
1) The performances are wonderful (for the most part)
The O.J. Simpson trial was full of outsize personalities, the kind of people an actor could easily portray as too campy and over the top. The People vs. O.J. Simpson, however, keeps things on a relatively even keel.
There are moments that tip over into ridiculousness — with younger versions of the Kardashian kids haunting the proceedings like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, how could they not? But the center of the story brings a certain level of dignity to the lawyers and other court personnel who became punchlines over the course of the long, long, long trial.
Of particular note are Sarah Paulson's Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance's Johnnie Cochran, two hugely experienced lawyers who respectively find themselves unable to leap from a sinking ship and pushing the case ever further into theatrics. With them on either side are a very good Sterling K. Brown as overmatched prosecutor Christopher Darden and a hugely enjoyable Nathan Lane as opportunistic defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey.
Cuba Gooding Jr. gives a restrained, conflicted performance as Simpson, alternating between the beloved figure of his upper-class Brentwood community and a man prone to rages, someone who very well seems capable of killing his ex-wife.
The one false note belongs to the biggest name. John Travolta turns up as defense attorney Robert Shapiro, and all through the series' first six episodes (out of 10), he feels a little thin, more of a caricature than a fully developed human being. But one mediocre turn in a cast this large — there are dozens of great actors I haven't mentioned — is an acceptable batting average.
2) The scripts stick to the facts, but leave room for commentary
At the center of the O.J. Simpson trial was a black man whose defense team successfully argued that he was targeted and framed by the police. He was also a man who'd frequently had run-ins with the police after his wife called to report his abuse of her. And finally, he was very rich, and thus able to retain the best legal representation out there.
The story, in other words, is sort of like a Venn diagram intersection of every single issue that gets under this country's skin and makes it act up. That's part of why the case monopolized the national dialogue in the mid-'90s. But The People vs. O.J. Simpson doesn't overplay its hand. It relies on the audience to tease out most of these ideas, focusing on the strange ironies and odd moments at the heart of the story.
Such Venn diagram intersections are where the The People vs. O.J. Simpson's showrunners — screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski — have made their name, in films as varied as The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Both writers wield a subtle touch when needed, which makes the more farcical moments of the whole enterprise land with greater comedic punch.
3) The direction is discombobulating
If there's an element of the series that will leave some viewers running for the exits, it's probably the direction. Four episodes were directed by Murphy, who's always been a stronger visual stylist than writer, and he opted to fill them with shots where the camera swirls around the characters, picking up speed as events grow more and more heated.
But I found Murphy's tactic to be neatly discombobulating. The O.J. trial seemed to send everybody spinning off their axes, so Murphy has found a way to replicate that in a single camera movement. The People vs. O.J. Simpson depicts a nation that's circling the drain but never quite going down it, improbably staying afloat.
Other episodes in the miniseries were directed by Anthony Hemingway and Boyz n the Hood's John Singleton, and both men turn their episodes into riveting chess matches, with lots of close-ups of lawyers strategizing and contemplating each other's weaknesses, to the degree that victims Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman almost become afterthoughts during the trial — just like they were in real life. It's often brilliant.
4) The '90s nostalgia is strong in this one
From the Jonathan Taylor Thomas poster adorning a wall in li'l Kim Kardashian's bedroom (where Simpson tries to kill himself!) to every piece of the trial being recreated down to the closest possible detail, The People vs. O.J. Simpson aims to resurrect a past that's recent enough to be remembered but distant enough to be a little foggy.
There's something noteworthy to this idea. The People vs. O.J. Simpson isn't just nostalgic for the sake of being nostalgic. The miniseries is a poison Valentine about the birth of the modern era. Cellphones might be gigantic (and essentially bound to the cars they come with), and the internet might essentially be a non-entity, but buried within this series is a somewhat serious argument that the O.J. Simpson trial marked the beginning of the world we live in today.
In particular, the series is fascinated by the continued intrusion of technology — represented here by television cameras — into the lives of everyone, and how that makes it easier for just about anybody to become a star. There's a perhaps too-cute scene where Robert Kardashian (a spot-on David Schwimmer) tells his daughters that the name Kardashian stands for "hard work," and it feels occasionally like an elbow to the ribs. But the series also observes how the girls notice the fame brought by cameras, presenting it as a kind of addictive substance that a whole country would soon begin to imbibe. It's impossible not to end up intoxicated.
5) It's Making a Murderer, but from the exact opposite angle
Think about it. Both stories are about legal defense teams who attempt to argue their client was framed by prejudicial law enforcement officials. Both stories feature cops who are most likely corrupt — even if they came to the right conclusions about these particular cases. And both stories detail the problems that money introduces in our legal system.
But where Making a Murderer was about how hard it is to be poor in the American courtroom, The People vs. O.J. Simpson is about how it's all but impossible to convict someone who's rich enough to pay for the best lawyers available. The series makes it riveting to watch Simpson's legal team cook up strategies that are seemingly impossible to succeed, because you know what's coming. They can't possibly sell any of this to the jury — but you know they do.
That's the tension within both works: a legal system (like everything else) that's as much about how much money somebody has as anything else. If Making a Murderer plays that idea as bleak tragedy, The People vs. O.J. Simpson keeps an unswerving jack-o'-lantern smile plastered on its face as it sinks into the abyss.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story debuts on FX at 10 pm Eastern on February 2.
Correction: Corrected the name of victim Ron Goldman.