Editor’s note: This review of American Crime Story contains spoilers.
American Crime Story Season 1 Episode 1
I really don’t remember much about the O.J. Simpson trial. I was not even six when the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were discovered. I seem to have a strong memory of watching the infamous police chase of the white Bronco, but it’s just as likely that instead of tuning in live, I saw it later, on a clip show like I Love the ’90s.
You would expect Ryan Murphy’s treatment of such delicate subject matter to be filtered through a similar lens: self-referential, mocking those involved with a hindsight they could never hope to possess. But American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson starts not with the discovery of this gruesome double murder, but two years earlier: the beating of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots that followed–not the kind of event that celebrity talking heads can easily riff on.
The pilot episode of what looks to be a compelling first season of American Crime Story (there’s already a second one in the works about Hurricane Katrina) establishes this civil unrest, the atmosphere of police bias against black people, as a frame before we even meet O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.). The series is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, which in turn draws from his reporting for The New Yorker at the time–that is to say, his focus on how pervasive race was to both the trial and the crime itself.
What seems to have many reviewers and TV viewers relieved is that Murphy didn’t write any of the episodes. The screenwriting team of Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Big Eyes) penned the pilot and several other installments. Instead, Murphy handled directing, and brought in some of the, shall we say, juicier parts, especially in the casting. Toobin’s reporting gave him unprecedented access to prosecutors, defense attorneys, Simpson’s entourage, even the dog walkers–Murphy accurately depicts those many complicated, overlapping microcosms here.
Most of the main players appear in this first episode, “From the Ashes of Tragedy.” This includes doomed prosecutor Marcia Clark (American Horror Story mainstay Sarah Paulson), who’s unprepared for the media attention; slick defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance); Cochran’s former mentee Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who joins Clark’s side; O.J.’s sleazy attorney Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and clumsily well-meaning friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer); Nicole Brown’s viciously gossiping frenemies Faye Resnick (Connie Britton) and Kris Jenner (Selma Blair).
And there’s Gooding’s performance as O.J. himself, which is delightfully (I feel morbid for saying it, but) uneven. Over the course of just one episode, we watch him go from the kind of celebrity who is somewhat wearied by his busy life to a man thrown alive to the piranhas. The media, which he is used to in a very particular context, has already honed in on him as a potential criminal. A paparazzo scales the wall at Simpson’s home to catch the five seconds he happens to be in handcuffs, and it goes the ’90s equivalent of viral. It felt not unlike a damning YouTube or Snapchat video making the rounds of the Internet.
And O.J. acts just like the public wants to see: He looks and sounds like a high-strung diva, pacing around his mansion while his entourage sits tensely by, snapping at his people for not making this go away fast enough. So far, he’s managed to keep his histrionics in check during actual police interactions, as we see from a chilling interrogation in which he dodges questions with the same ease with which he rushed the football field.
A lot of the story we see through Kardashian’s eyes as he tries to be there for O.J. as a friend, when it’s clear that O.J. wants him there as a lawyer (even though he’s retired, and has no criminal experience anyway). These transactional relationships, between Simpson and Shapiro and Kardashian–at one point O.J. shrieks “What am I paying you for?”— look to be some of the most fascinating aspects of ACS.
With the omniscient-third narration provided by Toobin’s extensive access, we already see this case as multi-faceted, but there’s still a level of mystery. Shapiro asks O.J. multiple times if he has anything to tell him in private. Simpson himself has more than one piece of dialogue with ominous subtext, like when he tells his freeloading friend Kato, “You like those burgers, don’t you? You told the cops you went out for burgers last night, right? Good, because that’s what happened.”
And of course, there’s damning behavior like the Bronco chase, which closes out the pilot – brilliant, as it’s one of the most iconic images of the trial. Let’s not forget that moments before, O.J. is holding a gun to his head in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom while Robert pleads, “You can’t do that, this is where my little girl sleeps.” And that actually happened! You can’t make this stuff up.