Review: American Crime Story's O.J. Saga Is a Striking, Suspenseful Look at the 'Trial of the Century'

TV Review Grade B+Four episodes into American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, FX’s dramatized examination of the famous murder case, Faye Resnick’s tell-all about her friendship with murder victim Nicole Brown Simpson hits bookstores.

The hastily slapped-together, tawdry memoir is loaded with tales of drugs, sex and violence; it’s cheap trash made even more offensive by the way it turns the deaths of two people into nothing more than a lurid grab at the worst kind of fame.

It would be natural to assume the same of the FX series, given that one of its executive producers is Ryan Murphy, whose American Horror Story revels in the gruesome and shocking. But that’s where the 10-episode drama surprises: Its attention to detail, focus on racial politics and ability to maintain an edgy suspense — even for those of us who lived through the trial — make Crime Story worth watching.

The series is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life and begins on June 13, 1994, the night that many believe former NFL star O.J. Simpson stabbed ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend, Ronald Goldman, to death at Nicole’s home. It continues through Simpson’s arrest and trial, introducing some of the case’s star players — including Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story), Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), Robert Shapiro (John Travolta, Pulp Fiction) and Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer, Friends) — as the fervor surrounding Simpson’s fate monopolizes the 24-hour news cycle.

Then there is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s mercurial portrayal of Simpson; though the series makes its lead character seem guilty from the get-go, Gooding’s performance itself is far more ambiguous. Is he the sobbing family man lamenting the loss of his beloved former partner? Is he the vicious abuser heard threatening Simpson in the background of a 9-1-1 call? Is he the befuddled manchild perplexed by the swirl of events at which he finds himself the center? Your guess is as good as (or maybe better than?) the jury’s — and Murphy, who directed the first two episodes and often hides O.J.’s facial expressions by shooting him from behind, sure isn’t telling.

Nearly all of the cast, in fact, brings real gravitas to a series of events that became late-night comedy fodder in the mid-90s. The most sympathetic — whether or not the actions of their real-life counterparts merit that sympathy — are Paulson’s Clark, who bristles beautifully as the whipsmart lead prosecutor told to “soften” her look so a jury will find her more likable; Vance’s Cochran, whose wisdom about both the case and public opinion prove crucial; and Schwimmer’s Kardashian, who comes across as a devout father and longtime friend torn between loyalty to Simpson and the increasingly damning evidence before him.

The one outlier happens to be Crime Story‘s biggest casting coup. Travolta’s performance as Simpson lawyer Shapiro is big, preening and verges on camp. This Shapiro, who’d fit right in with the denizens of the Hotel Cortez, is just too much in a series that feels at times like The Jinx.

Finally, The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s true feat is its ability to build real suspense using moments burned into our national consciousness. As you watch Gooding’s ride in the infamous white Bronco, just try not to get caught up in the “Will Juice commit suicide in the backseat?” tension that fills the scene. Of course he won’t. Of course there’s many media-circus miles to go before we sleep. But damned if you don’t find yourself holding your breath, anyway.

The TVLine bottom line: The luxury of hindsight, a stellar cast and the proper tone will make you want to sequester yourself with all 10 episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson.

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12 Comments
  1. N says:

    ” Not gonna watch cause Murphy is making this” in 3…2…1…

    • Joe says:

      His first seasons are great after that they go down hill

      • Patrick says:

        A lot of great auteurs suffer from this. Joss Whedon was great at world building. But maintaining or continuing proved problematic. As long as he was at the wheel it was great, but he lost interest as soon as he got a new toy (show) to work on. The people he picked to maintain his properties couldn’t maintain what he’d started. And that is fine. He builds great worlds, and then just loses interest. I’ve always wondered if this tendency didn’t hasten Firefly’s death. Did Fox look at FF and think, what will future years be like?
        .
        I have no interest in watching this series, but I think it will probably be pretty good.

      • Dude says:

        Then don’t watch season 2, it won’t be about OJ anyway (also, season two of AHS is way better than season one)

    • johnhelvete says:

      I dont like Ryan Murphy shows but I will be watching this, and my understanding is Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski are not only the creators but wrote every single episode. Murphy is just the EP/director of the first two episodes.

    • Sam says:

      To be fair, this would be the first genuinely good thing he’s made in quite a while.

  2. Jeri says:

    Must see viewing. Can’t wait.

  3. Lauren says:

    Such an iconic moment. It’s probably the first headline stories I remember. I was seven and we were on family vacation. We stopped everything, sat on beds in the hotel room and watched that Bronco go down the highway. Know what else? It will be the first Ryan Murphy production I’ve watched. Horror tv is not my style.

  4. Robin Clark says:

    FX how dare you make a miniseries of the monstrous at that you know O.J. Simpson committed I am so ashamed of you and I’m ashamed of every actor in the series and lost all respect for them and your company. The only thing I can think of is you are desperate for money because all the good shows you had are gone get out get out now

  5. Wow the acting, script, the direction, the drama to tonight’s episode was riveting. Simply excellent television. Travolta knocked it out of the park. Just great drama.