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.