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.