The true crime genre has reached phenomenon-level hype in the past year across multiple platforms, and we’re at a point when “based on true events” is basically proof of fiction. Here to straddle both of those lines is FX’s newest Ryan Murphy-produced anthology series, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, a drama that lays out a star-studded dramatization of a case that was presumably experienced in real time (for a long time) by the majority of the key 18-49 TV-viewing demographic and beyond. Yet, the show somehow manages to extract genuine tension and suspense from moments that have been embedded to familiarity extremes in both pop culture and recent American history. This is not what one expected from an American Horror Story companion series.
With so many places to begin talking about American Crime Story’s initial outing, one must fall back on the titular character, former football great O.J. Simpson. As the accused murderer, the Oscar-winning Cuba Gooding, Jr. turns in a performance that could indeed get him on a shortlist of Emmy nominees, giving audiences an O.J. that is objective enough to incite a debate about every instance where he shows emotion. Gooding, Jr.’s O.J. is neither an angel nor a devil, but a man who experiences a level of discomfort that he’s never faced before, and his ever-present stress anchors the entire shebang.
Now for the rest of this ridiculously well-cast ship. O.J.’s defense team is led by John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, and this is exactly the kind of Travolta you want every time the actor gets a role. He’s cocky, conniving and sharp, but plays all the cards as if he’s not hiding anything up his sleeve. Also there from the beginning is family friend Robert Kardashian, which is indeed the perfect role for David Schwimmer to show off his wide, worried eyes. Taking over the race-related side of things is Johnnie Cochran, played with restrained aplomb by Courtney B. Vance, whose role gets larger as time passes. And Nathan Lane is an eye-rolling treat as attorney F. Lee Bailey, never letting anyone forget his decorated past.
Trying to take O.J. Simpson down for the count is Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clarke, and part of the series’ power is watching her go from optimistic and cockstrong to a straw-grabbing wreck as everything goes against her case. Her cohort at first is Christian Clemenson’s level-headed Bill Hodgman, though the team changes to include Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden. Scenes between Paulson and Brown feature some of the smoothest dialogue of the series, and the two have a chemistry that helps to avoid making the prosecution look like the enemies here.
While Ryan Murphy isn’t a creator on this project – his contributions were mainly as executive producer and director – I still expected The People v. O.J. Simpson to veer off into near-comical territories, or to embrace a more camp sensibility. And if not that, to possibly go for broke on shock value like American Horror Story and some of Murphy’s other shows have embraced. (The show does play up the nastiness of the murders, but not to a disgusting extent.) But American Crime Story is already a more sure-footed drama than anything else in Murphy’s past, with the exception of The Normal Heart. There are definitely cheeky moments and cheer-worthy quotes, and watching current stone-age Larry King play a 20-year-younger version of himself is hilarious, but this doesn’t even vaguely resemble exploitation.
Earning the praise for the series’ scope and storytelling tempo are creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting duo behind such varied projects as Problem Child, Ed Wood, Man in the Moon and 1408. These guys cannot be tied down to one genre, and perhaps it’s because this case already existed in real life for the narrative-forming, but it seems like this kind of project is exactly what they should be doing with the rest of their careers. The pacing is quick and to the point, with tempers flaring and all forms of conflict ramping up as the case gets more complicated and relationships go downhill. The direction for each episode mirrors that intention, although you’ll notice there are more “camera circling all of the characters” shots than anything you’ve ever seen in your life.
With an extended cast that includes Connie Britton, Selma Blair, Bruce Greenwood, Kenneth Choi, Billy Magnusson, Cheryl Ladd and more, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story spins a surprising success out of a concept that seemed destined for solely ironic enjoyment. It isn’t always clear if there’s a message that the show is trying to deliver, or if this is just a strange reflection of the tabloid sensation of the case when it was occurring, but the fancy-free focus wasn’t a distraction. (It actually kind of makes my anticipation grown for next season.) And yes, things lighten up with Michael Bolton and C+C Music Factory popping up on the soundtrack every now and then, but this is not a series that makes light of the dismally dark subject at hand. For that, it should be applauded. Without any gloves on.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres on FX on Tuesday, February 2. Get prepared to hear a lot of people talking about what they were doing when they first heard about [insert a notable moment from the entire O.J. case].