The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story recap: The Dream Team
The defense team finally has all the key players ready for trial
“Imagine! Imagine that O.J. Simpson was set up by the cops because he was a black man. And because the LAPD has a systematic racism problem.”
So says lead defense attorney (for the time being) Robert Shapiro in the third episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson. This is the first chapter not directed by Ryan Murphy (Treme and American Horror Story veteran Anthony Hemingway is credited behind the camera), and the overall impact feels slightly deflated as a result of the box-checking and dot-connecting that the narrative needs to accomplish during this period of June and July 1994, after the Bronco chase and before the start of the pre-trial motions.
(As a reminder, these recaps will place the events depicted on the show in their historical context to illustrate how well synthesized so many of Murphy and company’s choices are.)
More than in the previous two installments, much of the dialogue here smacks of soundbite summarizing. Elsewhere I’ve mounted a defense the show’s necessary, if fantastically disliked, exploitation of the wretched Kardashian clan — who are vilified in this episode’s opening moments — while still admitting that David Schwimmer’s speech in that first scene is a bit too on the nose. Likewise, in this episode we also hear Kato Kaelin telling a jogging buddy, “Fame is complicated,” and Marcia Clark, reacting to a damning magazine article by gritting, “This is a declaration of war!” Lines like that contribute to the show’s perverse sense of satire and overcooked drama, though also come close to a yellow highlighter approach to storytelling that the first two episodes ordinarily jettisoned.
Clark is referring to the New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin, author of 1996’s The Run of His Life, on which the miniseries is based. “We have to stop looking at this case as a slam dunk,” Clark instructs her team. That magazine piece provides the meatiest drama in this hour, complete with an actor (Chris Conner) as Toobin. Here is the cover of the July 25, 1994, New Yorker magazine, wherein Toobin’s article “An Incendiary Defense” appeared:
The image pretty well illustrates the country’s preoccupation with the Simpson saga, exacerbated by the very fact that it was on none other than The New Yorker; with its eminence as a prestige publication, it was the furthest thing from a tabloid, even with media queen Tina Brown as editor-in-chief at the time. Fifteen months later, in the week after Simpson was found not guilty of double murder, the magazine ran a simple illustration of a half-full (or half-empty) glass of orange juice on its cover.
But this piece focused on Det. Mark Fuhrman, one of the first men on the ground at both the murder scene and Simpson’s estate, and offered a preview of the role he would unwittingly play for the defense. The Toobin article, culled partly from an official file on Fuhrman that the journalist easily obtained from the Los Angeles County Courthouse, offered by way of a short biographical sketch of the detective a rancid taste of what was in store.
“As Fuhrman later explained to Dr. Ronald R. Koegler, a psychiatrist,” Toobin writes of Fuhrman’s tour of duty in Vietnam 20 years earlier, “he stopped enjoying his military service because ‘there were these Mexicans and n—ers, volunteers, and they would tell me they weren’t going to do something.’ As a result of these problems, in 1975 Fuhrman left the Marines and went almost directly into the Los Angeles Police Academy.”
Later passages from Fuhrman’s file, described by Toobin, reveal a lawsuit that the detective filed against the LAPD a decade earlier, claiming that his job as a gangland cop “has damaged me mentally… I have this urge to kill people who upset me.” His court-sanctioned psychiatrist described Fuhrman as a “narcissistic, self-indulgent, emotionally unstable person who expects immediate attention and pity.” (The detective looms obviously large over this episode, even though actor Steven Pasquale never appears. However, his upcoming scene with Sterling K. Brown’s Chris Darden in episode 5 is, in my opinion, the show’s single most important and penetrating, and I’ll delve into it deeply in two weeks.)
In The New Yorker, Toobin published that the defense team was prepared to paint Fuhrman as a corrupt demagogue whose racist lunacy prompted him to frame O.J. Simpson for the murders. The author’s source, not named in the original piece, was Robert Shapiro, as chronicled here with a ripe sense for the lawyer’s (and John Travolta’s) theatricality. And the ultimate irony of Shapiro’s role as the inventor of this defense strategy is that he himself, 15 months in the future, would be the author of the self-incriminating quote, “We didn’t just play the race card — we dealt it from the bottom of the deck.”
But in July 1994, Shapiro’s ploy gains him kudos among his peers. “I hear a sound of metal orbs clanging together,” says F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) after reading The New Yorker article. “Oh, my God, it’s coming from your pants, Bob! Balls, big brass balls. God love ya!” Lane deserves an Emmy nomination for that line delivery alone, and his truly best stuff as Bailey is yet to come.
Indeed, in an unbelievably strong field, Lane might be the most impeccably perfect casting decision that Ryan Murphy and company have made on the show. Bailey, recognized as the one of the greatest cross-examiner of his generation, is also a ridiculous, later-disbarred buffoon, whose fondness for booze is so well-known that he began his 1975 memoir by writing, “Heavy trials make me thirsty.”
His legal successes, such as in the 1966 Sam Sheppard case (the likely basis for TV show The Fugitive), are overshadowed by his old-man bluster. And Lane, a comic actor with abyss-deep reservoirs of pathos, brings all of his Penguin-like waddle to the part. The anecdote revealed in this episode about Bailey being defended by Shapiro in America’s longest DUI trial is true — so is the unmentioned fact that the trial ripped their relationship so badly to shreds that the two men never spoke to each other ever again.
NEXT: Time flies (into the trash bin) and Johnnie Cochran takes the (first prank, then real) call
Part of the pleasure of watching The People v. O.J. Simpson comes from the small though crucial parts played by semi-forgotten actors from ’80s and ’90s television. We’ve already seen Malcolm Jamal Warner (The Cosby Show) as A.C. Cowlings and Cheryl Ladd (Charlie’s Angels) as Robert Shapiro’s wife. Here, CNN talk show host Larry King appears as the 21-year younger version of himself. Rob Morrow (Northern Exposure) appears as the defense team’s DNA expert Barry Scheck (of whom Marcia Clark would later say made her want to vomit) and Evan Handler (Charlotte’s husband on Sex and the City) in an uncanny performance as famed Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, topping even Ron Silver in the great Reversal of Fortune for pure doppelgänger quality.
“The Dream Team” also touches upon several other threads from the whole brouhaha, including the early quivers of the flirtatious relationship between Clark and Chris Darden (who both publicly denied being romantically involved) and, naturally, The Dream Team itself. For valuable dramatic effect, the show depicts Johnnie Cochran as impatiently waiting for O.J. to ask him for help. In an inspired moment, he gets the big call from “the Juice” and it’s a heavy-breathing caller, saying, “I killed her, I killed her good.” (With this scene and the memory of the Howard Stern/Peter Jennings prank I described last week, the show is making me nostalgic for the halcyon days before caller ID.)
But in reality, Cochran was a personal friend of Simpson’s and had been on the phone with O.J. since the day after the murders, rejecting Simpson’s overtures to join the defense team. Cochran was happy with his private practice and enjoying his time as an armchair lawyer on morning TV shows. And he had made up his mind about the O.J. case’s outcome. According to Toobin, Cochran told a friend three days after the murders, “O.J. is in massive denial. He obviously did it. He should do a diminished capacity plea and he might have a chance to get out in a reasonable amount of time.” (If you remember the final moments of episode 1, the “diminished capacity plea” idea there came out of Shapiro’s mouth.)
This episode comes to a close with Cochran, for sure, joining the defense and — along with Shapiro, Bailey, and Dershowitz — giving the table its sardonic name, which had become popular two years earlier as a moniker for the 1992 Olympic men’s basketball team. In a scene between O.J. and Cochran — no less powerful for being completely imaginary — the empathetic lawyer tells his client, “We get one black juror, just one, and I’ll give you a hung jury. When I give you a hung jury, you are going home.”
Of course, the trial’s jury will have many more than simply one black person. That’s assured, per district attorney Gil Garcetti, who tells Clark, “The optics are a million times better. I can’t risk getting an all white jury.” Clark reacts with a snarky smile. “Doesn’t Simpson deserve a jury of his peers?” she asks. “You know, rich, middle-aged white men?”
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But O.J., as has already been made clear, can see the light of freedom even without a stacked jury. The culture had already made that possible, buoyed by the news media’s inept bungling of his arrest in its first moments of life. Time magazine (which is published, like EW, by Time Inc.) had egg all over its face after putting digitized black paint all over Simpson’s. These “optics” were, in a word, horrible:
As a newspaper-stand owner says to Chris Darden in the show, “Pretty crazy, huh? They made him blacker.” In the era just before the internet, the Time cover went positively viral. The magazine’s then-managing editor explained that the cover art was not actually a photo but an illustration, created under a tight deadline, and said, “It seems to me you could argue that it’s racist to say that blacker is more sinister, but be that as it may: To the extent that this caused offense to anyone, I obviously regret it.” (Funny footnote: He made that statement in a message posted on America Online.)
To this day, the Time cover is taught in journalism classes across the country as an example of ethical recklessness — merely one more example of where the bulbous tentacles of this Dickensian O.J. epic, more than two decades later, have slithered and spread. And there are seven hours worth still to come.