‘The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ Series Premiere Review: I’m O.J., You’re O.J., We’re All O.J.

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Sure to generate some controversy- and some ratings, no doubt- “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” is the latest from the celebrated and multi-award-wining Ryan Murphy, of “American Horror Story” and “Glee” fame, here working for the first time with the incredibly talented screenwriting duo of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, of “The People vs. Larry Flynt” and “Big Eyes” fame. Murphy has taken some knocks for the writing on some of his series before, but don’t count on that being as much of an issue on this one, if the premiere is any indication.

The first season in what is proposed as an ongoing series that will cover a new high-profile case each season, it makes perfect sense that a series like this would start with arguably the most high-profile case of all-time, the O.J. Simpson trial. While the younger viewers out there might not recall it as clearly, those of us of a certain age and older certainly won’t soon forget it, that’s for sure.

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Correct me if I’m wrong, but this was the first case to be covered in such full-on detail by the media to the degree it was to the extent it was in history. Nowadays such things are much more commonplace, but this was the one that set the bar, and set it high. Everyone knew about this case, and whether you obsessively followed it or not- and many did- you certainly were aware of it.

It’s also the only case I can think of where people gathered round en masse to hear the verdict with bated breath to the extent they did. I remember we even stopped class in school just to listen to it! Name me the last time that’s happened since. To say it was a big deal is putting it mildly- big things hinged on it, and not just the obvious. As the show itself contextualizes, this was just two years after the Rodney King trial verdict in 1992 got everyone’s attention when it set a series of riots and looting all over the US, but in particular in California.

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Still reeling from the events, California clearly did not want another scenario like that on their hands with the O.J. Simpson verdict, despite the decidedly different circumstances at hand, hence the fact that America quite simply stopped dead in its tracks to see what would happen here: would he be found guilty, thus possibly setting into motion yet another wave of violence in the streets across L.A. and possibly other areas- or would he be found not guilty and that would be that?

Perhaps needless to say, it had a hell of a lot more riding on it than whether Simpson did it or not, as unfortunate as that may sound to younger readers. For this reason, his guilt or innocence were almost secondary to the ultimate outcome, and for that reason, people were decidedly on edge as a direct result of that. What would happen and how would people to react to it?

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Of course, most of us know the answer to that question, and I can’t imagine even younger audiences not being aware of it by this point: Simpson got off and was found innocent, despite a near-overwhelming amount of evidence against him. Was justice really done that day, or was a crisis simply averted? Whatever the case, what goes around comes around, and eventually Simpson was found guilty, albeit of a decidedly different kind of crime- mere robbery- that nonetheless landed him in jail, where he currently resides to this day, serving out a 33-year sentence.

Did fate catch up with him, or did his guilty conscience get the better of him and directly lead him to do something stupid that he knew would get him caught and force him to serve the time he avoided the first time around? We’ll probably never definitively know the answer to that question, but whatever the case, that time, he didn’t get away with it, and no one had an issue with it, and life went on as normal, which speaks volumes about how much things changed in the meantime. (But have they really? I’m guessing the people behind the Black Lives Matter movement would beg to differ on that count- but I digress.)

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Getting back to the show itself, you’d think, given how meticulously detailed everything already was back then, it would lack any sort of suspense and drama, but you’d be wrong. Not only was I on the edge of my seat by the end of it, but I would have gladly binge-watched the entire thing in one setting if it’d been an option. Truth is, I was too young at the time the trial originally happened to have followed it as closely as those older than me might have back then and as such, it was completely fascinating to me to realize how much I knew about it in spite of all that.

As I watched, names started to come back to me, and various details, and I don’t think it’s overstating the matter to say that I was as hooked now as many were back then, even already knowing the outcome. It was kind of similar to the feeling I had watching “The Newsroom,” which likewise covered events that happened fairly recently in history as well, albeit much more so than the ones here, but on a much more interesting level in that I know much more now than I knew back then, when I was basically still a child just starting to find myself and my place in the world.

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I remember the music for sure- grunge continued its decline in the wake of Nirvana’s front-man Kurt Cobain’s death, while rap continued its reign- and the movies brought us everything from the original “Toy Story” to “Clueless” to the decidedly edgier “Kids” (which I didn’t see until a few years later) and the uproarious “Friday,” not to mention great crime dramas like “Casino,” “Heat” and “The Usual Suspects.” However, politics were not on my radar as of yet, really, beyond thinking Bill Clinton seemed pretty cool by Presidential standards.

So, basically I still had one foot in childhood and the other in impending young adult-land, on the whole. I was aware of the O.J. thing, but I only knew him from the amusing “Naked Gun” movies, where, somewhat ironically in retrospect, he was the one constantly being abused with violence; but not as the football hero many others did. As such, it was only partially interesting to me, insofar as it was a celebrity on trial for murder, and that was still relatively unheard of back then, if I recall correctly.

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The show nails the sense of time and place pretty effectively without being obvious about it- the fashions, the fact that one could blatantly smoke in public without arousing as much ire as you would shortly thereafter, the cell phone and personal computers starting to become a thing more and more, and so forth. It also nails the casting- boy, does it nail the casting.

Fans of “American Horror Story” already know what Sarah Paulson is capable of, though award love has mostly eluded her, thanks in no small part to her co-stars’ domination in that particular area, notably Jessica Lange. That may change finally with her nuanced turn as prosecutor Marcia Clark, the woman assigned the case. I mostly recall her as being constantly bashed in the press for her appearance, of all things, which we haven’t gotten to as of yet, but I’m sure we will.

Here, we see someone, who like myself back then, barely had Simpson on her radar, and thus, had no idea the maelstrom she was about to enter. From the jump practically, she finds the general reaction odd to what she sees as an open-and-shut case of murder and what should be an easy win, and not much of a big deal, meeting everyone’s initial excitement with exasperation. She doesn’t care about celebrity, she just wants to do her job, and nail this guy with a history of violence for what she sees as an obvious slam-dunk. Boy, would she learn the hard way that such wouldn’t be the case at all.

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Both chewing scenery like it’s going out of style are John Travolta as Simpson’s initial defense attorney Robert Shapiro, and, as his subsequent attorney, the flamboyant Johnnie Cochran, Courtney B. Vance (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”). I loved the amusing touches of Shapiro namedropping Brando (whose son Shapiro represented), Johnny Carson, and talent agent Mike Ovitz, while Cochran talked about an impending meet with “MJ” at “Neverland”- aka Michael Jackson- and his various fears, including one of the color of lime!

It’s rare to see such a big name as Travolta on TV, but he completely owns the role, which may go down as one of his all-time best. Likewise, you all but forget you’re watching Vance, and accept him near immediately as Cochran, with his larger-than-life personality and win-it-or-quit-it attitude. The Simpson case, he says dismissively, is a “loser” and he doesn’t do losers. Little does he know…

Other familiar faces include Connie Britton, another “AHS”-vet, as Nicole Brown’s friend Faye Resnick, who wastes no time in declaring Simpson guilty and Brown a saint for helping get her into rehab and getting her life back together; Selma Blair (“Cruel Intentions”) as none other than Kris Jenner, formerly Kris Kardashian, another friend of Nicole’s (little Kim, Khloe, Kourtney and Rob also make brief appearances as kids); “Friends”-vet David Schwimmer as her ex, Robert, one of Simpson’s closest friends; Malcolm Jamal-Warner (“The Cosby Show”) as Al Cowlings, another friend with whom Simpson took a fateful, infamous ride in a white Bronco; and, as the man himself, Oscar winner Cuba Gooding, Jr. (“Jerry Maguire”) in a comeback role to end all comeback roles.

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This is just fun, juicy stuff, not without a sense of humor and irony, thanks to deft scripting by Karaszewski and Alexander. For instance, when Simpson threatens to take his life at Robert Kardashian’s house, Robert begs him to “Please don’t do it in Kimmy’s room” (as in Kim K, of course) and when a reporter wryly notes when he sees Simpson with Shapiro: “Who the hell brings his lawyer to a funeral?” as he covers said funeral! Touches like this make this endeavor as entertaining as it is alarming, given the known outcomes of a lot of this.

Honestly, I found the whole thing gripping and couldn’t wait to dive into another episode. If they had been made available, Netflix-style, all at once, I would have easily binge-watched the whole season, just as I did with “The Jinx” and plan to with “Making a Murderer.” The timing on this is impeccable, and I’m already excited by the prospects of what case another season could bring. (The oft-cited Manson trial seems a bit too obvious, not to mention overdone at the moment, between the ongoing series “Aquarius” and the recent TV-movie “Manson’s Lost Girls.”) It will be interesting to see what kind of reaction this gets from the press and public alike.

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Also, Brown’s people need not have worried about how Simpson is portrayed here- in the show and Gooding’s hands, Simpson is by turns pathetic and enraged, and almost certainly guilty, to the point that even his own lawyer is clearly dubious of him and asks him repeatedly: “Are you sure there’s nothing you don’t want to say to me?” This is definitely no sympathetic, watered-down Simpson we’re seeing here- it’s a calculated, scheming one that knows exactly what he’s doing, even if he’s not nearly as convincing as he seems to think he is. Gooding is fantastic, in the type of role that has eluded him since his historic win, which, somewhat ironically, was also for playing an athlete.

I can’t recommend this one enough, especially to people who were fascinated by the trial back then, but even to those who were too young or not even born yet at the time. You’d be surprised how effective it is, despite knowing the outcome. It’s just undeniably riveting to see it all dramatized like this, as it sets everything up and ticks off all the beats and drops clues we know will pay off later on. Few things are more enthralling than a true-life story, told effectively, and this certainly fits that bill.