Nation of TV viewers captivated by FX’s ‘O.J. Simpson’ drama

March 1, 2024 | (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It’s been more than 20 years since America was shocked by the 1994 double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, captivated by O.J. Simpson’s white Ford Bronco chase on live national TV, then gripped by the 1995 “Trial of the Century” with its racially-polarized verdict and unforgettable additions to our vernacular: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

Just this past weekend, the Los Angeles Police Department reexamined the case after discovering a knife on Simpson’s razed former Brentwood property. Simpson can’t be tried again due to double jeopardy, instead serving 33 years for the 2007 robbery of football memorabilia at a Las Vegas hotel, fueled by financial problems since losing a $33.5 million wrongful death civil suit in 1997.

It all proves the poignant power of FX’s hit new show “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” which airs Episode 6 on Tuesday night. The new anthology series will tackle different true-crime stories each season, following a similar model as FX’s “American Horror Story,” whose creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk serve as executive producers with Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson.

Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who cowrote Tim Burton’s “Ed Wood” (1994) and won a Golden Globe for writing “The People vs. Larry Flint” (1996), the TV series is based on the 1996 book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson” by Jeffrey Toobin, a former prosecutor turned journalist who covered the trial for The New Yorker. The show covers the case from various perspectives: the accused, the defense, prosecution, L.A.P.D., judge, jury and public.

Nit-pickers can find flaws if they want. The casting of famous faces is initially jarring, and at times characters say exactly what they’re thinking with on-the-nose dialogue and exposition. But to dwell on such things would be to pick apart an insanely gripping show with timely themes, symbolic direction and power performances that combine for a fascinating display of appointment watching.

Unlike the distracting choice of Luke Wilson as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in “Concussion” (2015), the famous faces in “American Crime Story” all quickly settle into their parts. Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers his best performance in years with a range of emotions from furious to suicidal, desperate to tormented, lashing out with life-or-death outbursts. We buy him as a former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL Hall of Famer after his Oscar-winning role as Rod Tidwell in “Jerry Maguire” (1996).

The casting of the supporting roles is also inspired, led by Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, a determined lawyer vilified by the media with all sorts of sexist undertones. The underrated Paulson has been quietly great in everything she’s done, earning an Emmy nomination as conservative campaign aide Nicolle Wallace who couldn’t pull the lever for Sarah Palin in “Game Change” (2012) and helping catapult “12 Years a Slave” (2013) to a Best Picture Oscar as a nasty plantation mistress.

Rounding out the cast is co-producer John Travolta (“Pulp Fiction”) as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance (“Hamburger Hill”) as Johnnie Cochran, Sterling K. Brown (“Army Wives”) as Christopher Darden, Kenneth Choi (“Wolf of Wall Street”) as Judge Lance Ito, Nathan Lane (“The Birdcage”) as F. Lee Bailey, Malcolm-Jamal Warner (“Cosby Show”) as Al “A.C.” Cowlings, Bruce Greenwood (“Star Trek”) as District Attorney Gil Garcetti and David Schwimmer (“Friends”) as Robert Kardashian.

Yes, those Kardashians.

Robert’s ex-wife Kris Jenner (Selma Blair) makes several appearances as Nicole Brown’s grieving best friend, as do their soon-to-be famous daughters Kim (Veronica Galvez), Kourtney (Isabella Balbi) and Khloe (Morgan E. Bastin), who run around the pews of Nicole’s funeral just like Sonny Corleone’s kids running around at the end of “The Godfather Part II” (1974) tragically laughing, “Daddy’s fighting again!” Who knew O.J. came close to committing suicide in Kim’s childhood bedroom?

Such tie-ins prove ironic as Robert tries to teach his daughters humility, a lesson that clearly didn’t set in for the sensationalist selfie generation. As such, “O.J. Simpson” paints the paparazzi-laced trial as a harbinger of present-day Reality TV that has invaded everything from pop culture to news to politics.

Dripping with such commentary, the thematic weight of the show undeniably taps into the cultural zeitgeist. These ideas are driven home by superb direction, using the white Ford Bronco as a chilling familiar image, decorating contrasting crime scenes to show how mise-en-scène might subconsciously impact a jury, and constantly showing the doomed prosecution team through symbolic black vertical window blinds, a classic fatalistic technique of jail-bar imagery (i.e. William H. Macy in “Fargo”).

The directorial reins are split by John Singleton (“Boyz N The Hood”), Anthony Hemingway (director of Omar’s infamous “Clarifications” episode of “The Wire” before directing episodes of “True Blood” and “The Newsroom”) and TV’s new kingpin Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story,” “Glee”).

While I felt that “American Horror Story: Hotel” was the weakest season in that anthology series, Murphy redeems himself with “American Crime Story,” shrewdly providing the narrative, dramatic counterpoint to such wildly popular TV documentary series as “Making a Murderer” and “The Jinx.” What’s next? The Manson Murders? The Black Dahlia? The Zodiac Killer? Jeffrey Dahmer? Ted Bundy? The true-crime possibilities are endless, but Season 2 is looking like Hurricane Katrina.

“I want this show to be a socially conscious, socially aware examination of different types of crime around the world. And in my opinion, Katrina was a f — ing crime … against a lot of people who didn’t have a strong voice and we’re going to treat it as a crime,” Murphy tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Such a track reveals the show’s thematic ambitions as a socially conscious drama exposing racial, gender and class divisions. Such divides were never more public than the O.J. Simpson trial, the verdict of which elicited cheers by elated African Americans who didn’t trust the L.A.P.D. and elicited stunned reactions by many white viewers who believed a celebrity had just gotten away with murder.

FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is not only gripping drama, it’s therapeutic television, helping to re-contextualize a lot of resentments that — two decades later — prove society’s wounds are still fresh.

Black and white audiences should take the pledge to eat humble pie and go in with an open mind.

White audiences: try to understand the climate surrounding the Rodney King police beating, the 1992 L.A. Riots, Time magazine’s immoral darkening of its cover, and Cochran trying to drive his daughters to dinner only to be pulled over by a racially-profiling officer. Such things fed into a building distrust of the L.A.P.D. that caused the African-American community to root for O.J.’s acquittal.

Black audiences: try to understand how white viewers might react to this mountain of evidence — bloody gloves, footprints, a near-suicidal highway run from the cops and an “If I Did It” novelization — only to see a high-powered defense team effectively play the “race card” (the title of Episode 5). Consider why this might cause resentment and skepticism toward future claims of racial injustice.

If we can all admit our inherent biases, seared on screen in a dramatic re-enactment, we might not only learn about the O.J. Simpson case, we might just learn something important about ourselves.

Did he commit the horrific crime? Only Simpson knows that for sure.

But the political circus that happened after? We the people did that.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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