You could be excused for thinking that a Ryan Murphy-branded series about the O.J. Simpson trial might err on the side of trashiness. The case is a landmark moment in American culture, but not a heartwarming one: It’s a travesty of justice obscured in a fog of tawdry tell-alls and the worst excesses of 24-hour cable news. But American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, which debuts on FX Tuesday night, understands the nuances of the moment it’s examining, and its critical bearing on issues still playing out in culture today. It might be the best thing that’s ever aired with Murphy’s name on it, and it’s one of the most compelling TV dramas in recent memory.
The People vs. O.J. Simpson is a meticulous work of true-crime drama (a resurgent genre in the past year) that also picks at America’s obsessions with celebrity and regurgitated gossip, as well as the racism of its criminal-justice system. It’s shockingly well-acted and sensitively rendered, considering the luridness of the material, and like any great retelling of a true story, it somehow combines two diametrically opposed thoughts. How could this have happened? The audience will wonder as they watch such a cut-and-dried case slip through the prosecution’s fingers. Yet, as the prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is dragged through the mud, as conspiracy theories begin to abound in the press, as Simpson’s celebrity taints the case, it’s hard to imagine the trial going any other way.
Perhaps the most significant achievement of American Crime Story is how clear-cut things seem in its first episodes, though its writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (who wrote Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt, and Man on the Moon) take care not to speculate on matters that aren’t in the public record. The body of O.J. Simpson’s ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a waiter, Ronald Goldman, are found outside her condo having been stabbed to death; Simpson’s Ford Bronco is seen speeding away from the area, and when he’s notified by the police of Nicole’s death, he doesn’t even ask how she died. When asked to turn himself in, he goes on the run, leading the police in a low-speed car chase that makes national headlines before he’s finally arrested. This material makes up the show’s first two episodes, cannily directed by Ryan Murphy, and it’s hard not to blame Clark as she looks at this evidence and considers the case against Simpson open and shut. How could he not be found guilty?
Viewers over a certain age will know everything that’s coming—at least the broad strokes of the media storm and nebulous political debate that played out around the Simpson trial in 1995. But Alexander, Karaszewski, and Murphy find newly relevant angles on how celebrity, and white America’s discomfort with confronting its legacy of racism, influenced the madness that would unfold. The show’s twin stars are its two most principled, admirable figures: Clark, who cannot believe that the American public would support an admitted wife-beater who fled his own arrest, and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), a celebrated litigator with years of experience fighting a justice system he knows is twisted and broken beyond repair. They’re diametrically opposed in the courtroom, and yet the show manages to get the audience rooting for both of them.
Of the six episodes given to the press, the real tour de force comes in hours five and six, which focus on Cochran and Clark respectively. The fifth fleshes out the backstory of a man who initially (privately) derided Simpson for being obviously guilty before publicly arguing that he had been railroaded by the racist LAPD, beginning with a flashback to a humiliating stop-and-frisk in front of Cochran’s family. The sixth looks at how Clark was raked over the coals by a sexist media happy to buy into the stereotype of a powerful woman being shrill, aggressive, and painfully cold, and her too-late awareness that it could actually affect the outcome of a case she saw as a home run.
It’s these nuances that have perhaps been forgotten amid the larger noise of the O.J. case in the intervening 21 years: the bloody glove, Nicole’s harrowing 911 tapes, that chase in the Ford Bronco with Al Cowlings (played here by Malcolm Jamal-Warner) shouting, “You know who I am, goddammit!” into the phone. In using the first three episodes to focus on the murder scene, the escape attempt, and the early realization by Simpson’s legal team that the press could be distracted by larger issues, Alexander and Karaszewski get to take their time with every subsequent mistake. This was a circus, but there were a thousand little elements that propped it up, and the anthology style of American Crime Story—which borrows from Murphy’s successful American Horror Story franchise—lets the writers pore over everything, using Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life as inspiration.
Vance and Paulson aren’t the only standouts in the ensemble. John Travolta, playing the preening defense attorney Robert Shapiro, lands somewhere in between imitation and vaudeville act: He’s over-the-top, but in ways it’s all too easy to imagine a lawyer for Hollywood’s rich and famous behaving. Cuba Gooding Jr., as Simpson, is spectacular as he breaks down during the Bronco chase, before receding into his jail cell as his team tries to hide his volatility and nasty temper from the world at large. David Schwimmer, as O.J.’s lickspittle best friend Robert Kardashian, is hilariously vacant and naïve; the show does its best to crowbar in references to his ex-wife Kris (Selma Blair) and their kids whenever it can (one pivotal scene takes place in “Kimmy’s” bedroom), perhaps the only moment the show feels too shameless for its own good.
Everyone in the cast, from stars (Connie Britton as Nicole’s strung-out friend Faye Resnick) to character actors (Christian Clemenson as Clark’s workhorse partner Bill Hodgman) to relative unknowns (Sterling K. Brown as the prosecutor Christopher Darden), pulls their weight. The acting is also surprisingly subtle—Murphy’s American Horror Story has turned into a showcase for absurdly over-the-top work, but American Crime Story wins by mostly keeping the lid on. There’s so much absurdity flowing through the O.J. Simpson case that it’s somehow all the more ridiculous when handled with this kind of deft realism. Rather than simply reveling in another classically American freakshow,The People vs. O.J. Simpson lets the story show itself for the tragedy it really was.