A gruesome double homicide in Brentwood, L.A., will set off the 'trial of the century' and cause a tectonic shift in America culture

By Joe McGovern
February 03, 2016 at 03:24 PM EST
Ray Mickshaw/FX

Guilty pleasure has never been a more apt description for a television show. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has been widely praised (including by EW) as a brilliant, complex, inflammatory retelling of the circus-style “trial of the century” from two decades ago. Anyone who’s over 30 can remember where he or she was on that day in October 1995 when the verdict was announced in the case of O.J. Simpson, the football icon and actor accused of stabbing to death his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her acquaintance Ron Goldman.

(Do you remember where you were? If you were in school, did your teacher stop class to watch the verdict on TV? Did you groan when you heard that Simpson was declared not guilty? Did you cheer?)

And anyone who’s under 30 and experiencing this tale fresh for the first time is in for a big treat. Although the show does occasionally slow its pace to memorialize the two people who actually died in these events (including in one heart-stopping moment from early in this first episode, featuring a child’s voice on an answering-machine message), the plain fact is that American Crime Story is dazzling, scintillating fun, by turns satiric and soapy, and nothing if not always aware of itself.

MORE ON THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY: Where Are They Now? | Cast Vs. Reality | EW Review | Exclusive Sneak Peek |

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed WoodThe People vs. Larry Flynt), the show is skippered by the mighty exec producer Ryan Murphy, who directed five episodes (including this one) and crucially understands the pop cultural consequence of the Simpson saga. The trial was televised “gavel to gavel” for its almost year-long entirety, and it acclimated Americans for the tsunami of 24/7 reality TV that was on the horizon. And it intensified the public’s already healthy appetite for true crime, celebrity humiliation, and the overall grisly — a banner that Murphy has proudly wrapped around himself with five seasons of American Horror Story.

Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor of the case against Simpson, will be sharing her unique first-person reactions to the show, including for the pilot. Clark in the series is played by Sarah Paulson, who will need a storage unit for all the trophies she’s going to win. And Paulson is merely the tip of an extraordinary human pyramid of actors who shine on the show, including Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, Sterling K. Brown, Nathan Lane, Cuba Gooding Jr., and yes, John Travolta.

My main goal in these 10 recaps will be twofold. First, to place the events depicted on the show in their historical context. That’s not meant as an attempt to play “gotcha” in situations where certain moments have been reordered or dramatized or consolidated for effect, but more to illustrate how well synthesized so many of Murphy and company’s choices are. And also to explain to newcomers that, yes, indeed, the low-speed white Bronco chase on the 405 freeway was a real thing. So was the catastrophic crucial detective with a penchant for Nazi mementos and the n-word. And so was the imbecilic houseboy who was so braindead on the stand that the court declared him a hostile witness.

And the second goal here will be bolster what I believe to be the show’s tantalizing thesis, which requires holding these two opposing points of view in your head at the same time: 1) that Simpson was guilty of the murders and 2) that the jury came to the correct conclusion by finding him not guilty.

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More than 20 years after the verdict, public opinion polling on Simpson is still split along racial lines, but a strange detente has emerged. Belief that he is guilty has risen by about 20 percent among both white and black Americans since 1995. O.J.’s 1997 loss in a civil trial and current long-term imprisonment due to a 2007 robbery has interestingly cooled passions over whether his innocence should be vindicated or his guilt punished. A poll conducted by The Washington Post last year saw it this way:

American Crime Story is based on the 466-page book The Run of His Life by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who is also a consultant on the show. Toobin is unambiguous in his book about Simpson’s guilt. “Of course [defense lawyers] Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran knew,” he writes in his prologue, “that O.J. Simpson was guilty.” (Simpson himself stepped one foot through the door in by authoring a bizarrely quasi-incriminating book called If I Did It in 2007.) The show, however, sidesteps the whodunit question — perhaps to satiate the roughly 30 percent of viewers that believe O.J. is innocent — and focuses on the next sentence that Toobin writes:  “Their dilemma was the oldest, as well as the most common, quandary of the criminal defense attorney: what to do about a guilty client?”

“The answer, they decided,” Toobin continues, “was race.”

NEXT: The past (and Rodney King) is prologue

Here, provocatively, is the scene that opens the show:

March 3, 1991: A white plumber on his balcony videotapes the beating of a black man named Rodney King by four police officers. King, a cab driver, had been pulled over after a high-speed car chase. The video went global, and King’s name because synonymous with the systemic racism, corruption, and brutality within law enforcement, especially in this case, the Los Angeles Police Department.

American Crime Story isn’t the first time a narrative has begun with the Rodney King footage. Spike Lee used clips of it in the opening credits of his 1992 movie Malcolm X. The tragic irony of watching the King video now, 25 years later, is how amateur recordings of such incidents have grown so great in number — and in grotesquerie — that many police departments are outfitting their own officers with body cameras, or debating whether to do so.

In April 1992, the jury’s acquittal of three of the four officers (they deadlocked on the fourth) triggered the L.A. riots, which cost the city 53 lives and $2 billion dollars. Particular attention was paid to the fact that the jury was impaneled from the predominantly white L.A. suburb of Simi Valley. (Don’t forget the name of that town — it plays a little supporting role later on in the series.)

Enter into the picture O.J. Simpson. As this episode begins in proper, the Juice is strolling out from his mansion in the wealthy neighborhood of Brentwood on a warm night in June 1994. Handsome, smiling, and dressed in a stylish turtleneck and blazer combo, Simpson looks just like the celebrity he is (NFL superstar, Heisman Trophy winner, actor in the Naked Gun comedies, pitchman for Hertz), as he hops into the back of a limo for a ride to the airport. A celebrity golf tournament beckons in Chicago.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, a man named Steven Schwab is walking his dog when he comes upon another canine, all four of its paws red with blood. That dog crosses the street and alerts Schwab to Nicole Brown’s blood-soaked body on the front pathway of her house. In reality this timeline was stretched out: Schwab took the lost dog (an Akita named Kato, owned by Nicole), back to his house for about an hour before letting the Akita lead him to the body.

Or, as it turns out, bodies. Over the next six minutes in the show, we explore the crime scene and inspect evidence along with a trio of white male detectives: Philip Vannatter (Michael McGrady), Tom Lange (Chris Bauer), and Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). We see the bloody bodies of Nicole and Ron Goldman in the front of her house, a bloody glove, bloody footprints, but an undisturbed home. No signs of forced entry or a robbery.

The three men then head to Simpson’s house. Fuhrman, who had been sent to O.J. once before on a domestic violence call, knows where he lives. Pay attention to the evidence discovered, but most importantly to the person discovering it. Mark Fuhrman, more than any other person in the whole world, is most responsible for the eventual not guilty verdict in Simpson’s trial. (I’m jumping way ahead here, but the ’90s song used on the soundtrack five episodes from now, as Fuhrman enters the courtroom to testify, makes for one of the most chilling musical cues for a character in recent memory.)

But on this first night Fuhrman finds bloody spots on the outside door and interior of O.J.’s Ford Bronco and another bloody glove in a pathway behind the guesthouse of a bloody idiot named Kato Kaelin (Billy Magnussen). Inside the main house, Lange calls O.J. in Chicago to inform him of his ex-wife’s death. After telling Simpson that Nicole has been killed, Lange turns to Vannatter and says, “He never asked how she died.” That’s true according to the record — except for the fact that another detective named Ron Phillips actually notified Simpson. Lange, in reality, informed Nicole’s family and was alarmed by the reaction of Nicole’s sister Denise, who screamed into the phone, “He killed her! He finally killed her!”

NEXT: Let’s get a prosecutor’s opinion – and learn some basic defense

When she was called at home on the morning after the murders, for her prosecutorial opinion on seeking a search warrant, Marcia Clark had never heard of this O.J. Simpson guy. In contrast to many of the detectives on the case and even district attorney Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), all fans of the Juice, Clark’s first knowledge of Simpson was as a resident of Brentwood facing an Everest of proof that he killed two people. “This prosecutor says ‘Go get him,’” Clark tells Vannatter on the phone after hearing about the blood evidence.

The warrant is signed by a magistrate later that morning, at about the same time that O.J. is arriving home from his short trip to Chicago. And from here, the episode cannily splits its time between the Simpson bubble and the DA’s office, where a case is rapidly being built against him. Toobin’s book takes a pause here and instead sketches a lengthy biographical portrait of Simpson, which crescendos with the graphic recounting of a (ninth!) domestic violence incident against Nicole while they were still married in 1989, for which charges were filed against him. 

The episode weaves in that detail with great efficiency. “He’s not so terrific,” says prosecutor Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) to Garcetti and Clark. “Simpson has a prior. Five years ago he pled no contest after he beat up Nicole. He never even did his community service. He just got out — celebrity style.” Garcetti decides to team Hodgman with Clark to sort through the escalating evidence against Simpson (“Bill runs a little cooler than you,” Garcetti tells her) while elsewhere in Los Angeles, O.J. is being interviewed by the two detectives Vannatter and Lange, notably without legal counsel present.

In his book, Toobin refers to police behavior which “suggested a fear of offending a celebrity.” And to heighten that shuddering hypocrisy, we hear the O.J. interview as Clark is listening to a tape of it. “What? What did he say?” she says, flabbergasted by Simpson’s evasiveness, for example, about when he parked his Bronco. “Seven, eight, nine, that’s not an answer! Guys, lock him to a timeframe, pin him to a version of the story he can’t change later,” she shouts into the tape player. Upon being asked how a gash was cut into his finger, Simpson tells the detectives that he can’t remember. And they don’t challenge him. (Ironically, of course, the favoritism he received will later be turned inside out when some of the same detectives will be accused of framing O.J.)

At this point, Simpson solicits the help of two men who will become key members of his legal team, his soulful friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and the pompous celebrity attorney Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), famed for securing his clients plea bargains. The eventual architect of Simpson’s defense, Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), has also already been smartly introduced — he’s first seen picking out suits in his walk-in closet (to his wife’s suggestion of the purple one, he quips, “I don’t wanna look like no grape”) and then later, in a powerful encounter, confronting fellow lawyer, prodigal son, and future nemesis Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown).

Ray Mickshaw/FX

While Cochran is being driven to a TV appearance, the camera holds on his face as he’s listening to a journalist Dennis Schatzman on the radio, saying, “The LAPD’s war against African-Americans needs to be stopped.” While having cosmetics applied before appearing via satellite on Larry King Live, Cochran is explaining to the makeup woman that he won’t be getting involved in the Simpson case. “My plate is full!” he says. “I’m busy with a single mother, been shot nine times by the LAPD. Tragic, typical, but it ain’t sexy so they kick it to the back of the newspaper.” When she asks what he’d say if Simpson asked him to help: “Oh no, no, I like to win. This case is a loser.”

NEXT: You’re never a loser until you quit trying…

Why would Cochran refer to case as a loser? Let’s list the ways:

  • A well-chronicled history of domestic violence between Simpson and his ex-wife, including damning 911 calls like this one.
  • Blood and hair and shoeprint evidence that not only placed Simpson at the scene of the crime, but were also underlined by the even more damning presence of Nicole’s blood on one of O.J.’s socks later found in his house.
  • A pair of bloody gloves, one found at the crime scene and the other on O.J.’s property.
  • No alibi and a timeline strengthened by multiple eye and ear witnesses, including the limo driver who picked up Simpson — and Kaelin, who heard someone slam into the outside wall of his guesthouse.
  • The administering of an inadmissible lie detector test, which Simpson failed comprehensively.
  • And then there was this:
  • On Friday, June 17, 1994, five days after the murders, the DA’s office called Shapiro and notified him that Simpson was officially being charged with double homicide. At 8:30 a.m., Det. Lange instructed Shapiro to surrender Simpson by 11 a.m. that day and the lawyer agreed.

    For the next several hours, Shapiro and a squad of doctors convened at Robert Kardashian’s house to prep Simpson for his surrender. Because of special circumstances in the charge (i.e. death penalty potential), O.J. would not be allowed to post bail. A psychiatrist was present, “just in case we need a diminished capacity defense,” Shapiro tells Kardashian. But as the clock approaches 11, Simpson’s behavior grew erratic, culminating in the handwriting of a last will and testament, which in effect was his suicide note.

    Indeed, O.J. had a gun with him, which he fitfully waves in his hand and holds to his head. We can and surely will over the next ten weeks debate whether O.J. killed other people, but we obviously know he didn’t kill himself. All the more amazing, then, that his suicide theatrics make for an inexplicably and palpably tense scene to watch. And even a bit meta. When Kardashian convinces O.J. to put the gun down, he does so by evoking the name of his 13-year-old daughter: “O.J., please, do not kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom.” (Stay tuned, Keeping Up With the Kardashian fans — haters, too — for a big delicious Easter egg at the beginning episode 3.)

    But it’s that suicide note which will play a bigger role in the next episode, of which the fireworks that close this one merely allude to. When the police arrive to apprehend O.J., it is discovered that he has escaped from Kardashian’s house with his old Buffalo Bills buddy, A.C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) in the latter’s identical white Ford Bronco. Simpson is now officially a fugitive from justice. And despite that, he’s not even suffering the most malnourished reputation of anyone in Los Angeles.

    Marcia Clark, speaking on behalf of the district attorney’s office and by extension the LAPD, gets the episode’s prophetic last word.

    “We’re going to look like morons.”

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