The True-Crime Power of The People v. O.J. Simpson

The FX series wasn’t a traditional whodunnit—but that’s precisely why it resonated with viewers so much.


There were likely people who heard about FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. last year and assumed it would be, at best, an ill-advised highlight reel of the Simpson murder case. The Bronco chase, the glove, the Mark Furhman tapes, the way the country came to a standstill when the verdict was announced: Ironically, some of the show’s most surprising scenes came from these very well-trodden moments, including the smaller ones. (Consider the prosecutor Marcia Clark’s decision to get a perm—a move brutally mocked then and now.)

But in the hands of The People v. O.J., the hairdo mishap wasn’t an unfortunate, colorful bit of trivia. It was a window into the current of sexism that coursed through the trial—one that manifested as disdain for domestic-violence victims or scorn for working mothers with child-care needs. It was decisions like these, to recontextualize and elevate the familiar or mundane, that ultimately proved the show’s mettle as an incisive work of true crime.

Unlike with Making a Murderer, The Jinx, or Serial, the question of whodunnit is completely besides the point in The People v. O.J., which aired its finale Tuesday. Americans have had 20 years to pore over the (widely accessible) body of evidence, and decide whether Simpson killed Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, before the FX show came along. So by disowning that burden, the writers were able to treat the show as a different kind of detective story: an examination of the processes, procedures, and errors that led to Simpson’s acquittal. The result was a series whose ending may have been written 20 years ago, but that still felt like a necessary addition to the canon of Simpson-related works, mostly for the way it used the trial to tackle the other ugly crimes of the age, including racism, sexism, domestic violence, and media bias.

The show succeeded largely because its creators—and viewers—could approach the story with the luxury of hindsight and reconsider the nuances of a subject everyone thought they already knew about. It took years for a majority of black Americans to agree with whites that O.J. did it—but it took just as long for others to grasp why that change of heart didn’t come sooner. As the linguist John McWhorter recently wrote in The New York Times, during the trial “America learned the difference between what the cops mean to black people versus what they mean to most others. Too few got the message at the time.” But the killings of unarmed blacks such as Tamir Rice and Michael Brown in recent years have led to significant changes, McWhorter noted. “I suspect that the black response to the verdict, if it happened today, would surprise far fewer whites than it did 20 years ago.” That real-life shift translates into a People v. O.J. that resonates that much more strongly with viewers today.

Twenty years of critical distance has also made it easier for the show’s viewers to appreciate the technological and legal ramifications of the case—recalling how Making a Murderer delved into the evolution of DNA technology. Anyone watching The People v. O.J. Simpson today—in the age of bloated Law and Order and CSI franchises—would probably be stunned to see how the defense managed to undermine the prosecution’s supposedly airtight physical evidence. Though circumstances at the time—the constant media coverage and Simpson’s vast legal resources—put the DNA evidence under stronger scrutiny than usual, the outcome of the trial sent a message to forensic scientists around the country to be less sloppy, as The New York Times reported in 1995. And the Associated Press noted 20 years later that lab technicians (at least those in Los Angeles) have become far more careful in hewing closely to procedure as a result of the case.

The People v. O.J. proved to skeptics that there can be enormous value in dragging up seemingly closed cases—even ones that American culture seemed to have endlessly rehashed. Which is why the upcoming ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, O.J.: Made in America, makes so much sense as the next work seeking to unpack the Simpson trial. The film promises to be a more sober and stripped-down work with something different to offer than the FX show. To make the series more weighty, the filmmaker Ezra Feldman said he avoided including the Kardashians or interviewing the key-witness-turned-celebrity Kato Kaelin. “Maybe this is going to sound a little pretentious,” he told Vanity Fair, “but I would at least like to have the appearance of seriousness that maybe would be co-opted by [Kaelin’s] presence.”

It’s an understandable sentiment; it’s so easy to tire of the tabloidization that turned the trial into a circus and obscured the real matters at hand. But The People v. O.J. cared deeply about showing how this sensationalism affected the trial and all involved. It showed how the main players—the prosecutor Marcia Clark, the defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, the judge Lance Ito, Brown herself—all became ugly caricatures, and, conversely, how Goldman was relegated to being a “footnote in his own murder,” as his father said. Still, the co-writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander have spoken about how they never wanted the show itself to be “exploitative” or “cheesy.” “All the shows we get compared to are documentaries,” Karaszewski told Vulture, adding that he admired Serial and Making a Murderer. “We are a work of drama, and that sometimes allows us to go dig deeper.”

It’s possible that the upcoming O.J.: Made in America will be the more meticulous and comprehensive of the two projects. But if the amount of serious collective reappraisal spurred by the FX  show (which has garnered nearly 8 million viewers) is any indication, The People v. O.J. may be the best vehicle thus far for bringing up complex, broader questions about American justice, without losing sight of the human toll. No surprise then, that the show already appears to have inspired another successor of sorts, continuing the genre revival that Serial began in 2014. The same day as the finale, NBC announced a new anthology series from Dick Wolf, titled (what else?) Law and Order: True Crime. The subject of the first season? An infamous Los Angeles slaying that preceded O.J.—the Menendez Brothers murders.