For some reason when I first heard that there was a new show called, The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the only detail I focused on was Ryan Murphy’s name in the credits.
“What?” I thought. “The guy who does Scream Queens, Glee, and American Horror Story is doing a T.V. show about O.J. Simpson?” I couldn’t think of anything weirder than that, other than Neil’s sudden enthusiasm for watching a Ryan Murphy show.
Turns out Ryan Murphy is just one of four executive producers on this joint, along with Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson. The show does have some major signposts of Muphy’s involvement, including Sarah Paulson, who plays the proecution’s lawyer Marcia Clark, who is also in American Horror Story. The show also features his ability to make almost anything campy and exciting, including a romance between two very overworked lawyers. What it lacks is his hipster racism, which usually comes to life in the form of antagonists making racist puns, which is supposedly ok cuz they’re “the bad guys.”
The cast is star-studded and also a wonderful tour of actors we forgot about from 15 years ago. It includes Selma Blair as Kris Jenner, Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. himself, David Schwimmer (aka Ross from Friends) as O.J.’s lawyer, Rob Kardashian, John Travolta as O.J.’s other lawyer, Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane, as O.J.’s OTHER other lawyer (more to come), F. Lee Bailey, and small appearances by other early-2Ks actors like Jordana Brewster as Denise Brown. (Even Connie Britton makes a brief and amazing appearance in this series as Nicole’s friend Faye Bresnick.)
Despite all the feels this jumble of fairly huge actors brought to the table, some of the most standout performances came from actors who aren’t yet household names. Sterling K. Brown plays Christopher Darden, a lawyer whose invitation to take center stage on the prosecution team leads to major soul-searching (more on that later). He’s a fantastic actor, and gives us a much needed break from the odd feeling of remembering that John Travolta truly is a great actor, even though he’s a Scientologist, and also has weird, glue-on eyebrows in this role. Courtney B. Vance plays O.J.’s most important lawyer (see, I promised more lawyers), Johnnie Cochrain in another scene-stealing performance.
If the word “American” being in the title of something isn’t enough to attract you to it (think about it, lots of good things have American” in the title), that roster of actors surely will. And if that doesn’t, surely you can’t pass up a chance to see Selma Blair showing us what a young Kris Jenner may have looked like.
I’m going to admit my own naïveté for a second here. When the O.J. trial was happening, I had no idea that the case was so strongly connected to a dialog on racism and police brutality. I was probably in 2nd grade. The most masterful things that American Crime Story does is help us understand the complete cultural context behind the trial, while also showing how that affects the inner life of each character.
One of the most interesting plotlines is the tension between Christopher Darden and Johnnie Cochran. Cochran built a case around the accusation that the L.A. police were fundamentally racist, and made it their priority to frame and punish successful black men like O.J. Simpson. Darden realizes that part of the reason he was promoted within this case was because he was black, and the prosecution needed his credibility to appeal to the largely black jury. Cochran antagonizes Darden for supposedly playing into their game, and Darden bites back. This tension becomes the central point of the show, overshadowing even the glitzy young Kardashians and of course O.J. himself, who is a fairly minor character.
The People v. O.J. Simpson feels particularly relevant in light of two major phenomena: the Black Lives Matter movement and Making a Murderer. Many of us were truly convinced by the angle of Netflix’s documentary, which exposed massive police corruption in order to make you rethink the conviction of Steven Avery. The defense of O.J. Simpson was built on a similarly masterful exposure of corruption. Both cases play on our paranoia that the system that is meant to protect us is actually only there to protect the already-powerful. This gains another dimension when Clark, after O.J. is found not-guilty, uses her speech to reassure women that the system is still there to protect victims of abuse.
The first season of this new series was very masterfully done, walking the line between glitz and serious philosophical exploration. Season 2 is rumored to be about Hurricane Katrina, and I look forward to a similar amount of nuance and drama. The real question is, who will play Kanye West?