Early in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) asks about a concept that will soon change her life: “Optics? What are optics?” She’s being sarcastic, and the no-dummy deputy district attorney thinks she understands the politics of appearance, but she has no idea. As she prosecutes the “trial of the century” before a worldwide audience, she finds a rock-solid case shredded by superior, savvier opponents with their cunning framing of fact and narrative. And as she becomes a celebrity, she finds herself judged by self-styled experts and armchair jurists for the way she executes her job, the way she represents her gender, the way she wears her hair. “I’m just not a public person,” she says during the inevitable meltdown. This was 1995. Can you imagine what Twitter would have done to her? Actually, you can.
American Crime Story is a meticulously crafted, powerfully resonant docudrama that crackles with timely issues—race,
sexism, privilege, celebrity, broken justice, media manipulation, and more. It’s a creation myth for an era obsessed with true crime and swamped in truthiness. It even explains the Kardashians. Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life, the inaugural season of American Crime Story is a triumphant TV debut for writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, so brilliant at biopics (The People vs. Larry Flynt), and a rousing affirmation of the anthology form pioneered by exec producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk (American Horror Story).
Contextualized by the police brutality against Rodney King in 1991 and the L.A. riots of 1992, the 10-episode series begins with the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, ex-wife of NFL great O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), and Ronald Goldman in 1994, and turns well-trod history into incredible entertainment. The storytelling digs deep into iconic moments and delights in telling details.
We go inside the Bronco during O.J.’s slow-speed flight from police. Legal strategies are illuminated, particularly Team Simpson’s controversial decision to “play the race card,” and the relationships are richly explored. Robert Kardashian’s (David Schwimmer) protective, idol-worshippy friendship with Simpson is heartbreaking. Clark’s rapport with Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) is increasingly moving. The struggle between attorneys Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance)—for control, for credit, for the cameras—is as gross as it is engrossing. The victims get lost in the drama—but how appropriate.
Aside from Travolta’s upstaging eyebrows, the actors wow with empathy and nuance. Gooding’s Simpson is a man unhinged by his sudden fall from grace and privilege—a well-played perspective that works regardless of the final verdict. Paulson makes Clark a sympathetic hero without sanding off her edges. Vance’s Cochran rivets with charisma and complexity. We hate him for fogging the jury—and us—with specious skepticism and counternarrative, but we always understand his righteous rationalizations. An enthralling recollection of a tragic mess with a long legacy, The People v. O.J. Simpson fits our moment like a glove. A