‘American Crime Story:’ Ryan Murphy v. O.J. Simpson

American Crime Story

FX and Ryan Murphy’s ‘American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’ is (mostly) an unexpected master class in restraint

We all remember where we were when football star Orenthal James Simpson and friend A.C. Cowlings led the L.A.P.D. in a freeway chase. Just two years after the Rodney King riots, the famed white Bronco was soon splashed on every TV set nationwide. Crowds stood on overpasses, cheering on “The Juice.” Then, later, his “Trial of the Century,” famously resulting in a Not Guilty verdict, was equally omnipresent. All of it captured for mass consumption, the dawn of the modern tabloid era which synthesized the celebrity culture, racial politics, and the American justice system in a damaging cultural movement. But we did not know that then. Now, looking back some twenty years later, Ryan Murphy (American Horror StoryGlee) brings us American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson to relive the sordid saga all over again.

Fortunately, the pilot, as directed by Murphy, bears little of his penchant for sensationalism. May I even suggest that the pilot, filled with tasteful restraint and carefully guided performances, is perhaps the greatest thing Ryan Murphy has and potentially ever will produce. It’s the complete antithesis of what I expected when the project was announced.

American Crime Story

The pilot begins on the evening of June 12, 1994. A man walks his dog in the posh Los Angeles Brentwood neighborhood. After briefly attending to an in-distress dog with blood on its paws, the man sees a crumpled, bloodied body, Nicole Brown Simpson. The subsequent hour and change deals with the gruesome discovery’s aftermath as the police, media, friends, family, and lawyers swarm around O.J. Simpson, the primary (only) suspect in the case. All of the famed data points are present here. Mark Fuhrman. The bloody glove. Marcia Clark. The Kardashians. Kato Kaelin. And, yes, the white Ford Bronco.  We navigate effortlessly through the material thanks to its fresh presentation by Murphy and ace writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood). We know all the beats, but they’re refashioned into something that feels entirely new and particularly vital. My personal suspicion is that Murphy will receive much of the credit, but it’s the script that keeps him in line. Given the nation’s intimate knowledge with the material, this story wasn’t something with which he could play around. I still find his occasional choices frustrating, particularly a single sequence in which evidence is presented with a “WHOOSH” on the soundtrack. It’s cheap and unnecessary, but it’s a single blemish in a sea of great things.

As great as the script is, it’s the actors that really make the episode soar. Everyone delivers in the pilot. I had misgivings about Oscar winner Cuba Gooding Jr. taking the lead role as Simpson. He looks nothing like the man. He’s quite a bit shorter, and his voice is entirely too high pitched to match Simpson’s throaty voice. But I’ll be damned if Gooding doesn’t effectively pull off Simpson’s scenes of what is effectively black rage. Rage against the police. Rage against the system. Rage against his attorneys. It’s modulated, of course, but Gooding delivers far better than I ever imagined he could. American Crime StoryJohn Travolta has the tricky role of Robert Shapiro, and his performance tiptoes the line between inspired imitation and complete camp. David Schwimmer admirably looks incredulous as his unwavering support of “The Juice” begins to flag when O.J. “flunks” (Shapiro’s words, not mine) a lie detector test.

But, early on, the American Crime Story MVP’s appear to be Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson as Johnnie Cochran and Marcia Clark, respectively. Vance dances in the role of Cochran as if he were born to play it. Every line sings with that perfectly tuned Cochran flair and bravado. Even dressing in the morning, the man appears to always be “on,” and Vance captures him perfectly. Paulson’s Clark is initially all gung-ho bravado, and Paulson gives great bitch. Her performance, though, is likely to become more shaded and nuanced as the series progresses and as Clark begins to crumble under the national pressure to obtain a guilty verdict. She’s very strong in the pilot, but I’m doubling down on her for future greatness.

American Crime Story

Thankfully, the American Crime Story pilot doesn’t suffocate us with its themes. Footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots sets the stage for the unease between the L.A.P.D. and the broader African-American community. There are also fleeting moments of the blossoming tabloid celebrity obsession and the emergence of a new class of celebrity, high profile defense attorneys. These themes will obviously play out over the remainder of the season, so it’s early to say just how delicately they will ultimately be handled. But the pilot sets just the right tone. It isn’t all about O.J. either. There are devastating sequences that will remain with me for a very long time – one involving a message left on an answering machine and another involving Nicole’s open casket funeral.

Twenty years may feel too soon for many to revisit this inflammatory case. American Crime Story will undoubtedly spark new conversations and reignite the embers of the kinds of racial discord we would all do well to leave behind. Yet, so far, Ryan Murphy has built a tasteful and captivating start as he seeks to find new meaning in one of our biggest national nightmares. It’s a huge risk, but the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. And, so far, the rewards are substantial.

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