On the eve of The People Vs. O.J. Simpson’s premiere I wrote that I wanted the show to either be the most gloriously trashy thing to ever hit TV screens or the best drama of all time. Anything in between would be unacceptable. So which was it? Well, neither actually. The show does have trash elements–we’ll get into those below–and it is far from the best drama of all time but it is nevertheless surprisingly compelling and imminently watchable. Episodes fly by at a rapid pace and the acting is exemplary…for the most part. Most of its success is due to lead writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the duo who also penned Tim Burton’s best film, Ed Wood, and The People Vs. Larry Flynt among others. They have an uncanny ability to capture a particular period in time with great success and are able to make the minute details of real life situations feel like high drama. Most of the show’s problems are probably due to executive producer Ryan Murphy, who can’t seem to help himself when it comes to hitting audiences over the head with a sledge hammer. This man doesn’t just beat dead horses, he grinds them into a pulpy mess and pisses on the remains. Nevertheless, the show is solid. Below is a breakdown of what works best in the series, what doesn’t work at all, and one very big element that I’m on the fence about.
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark
Paulson is frequently the best (or only) element that works in American Horror Story so it should come as no surprise that she’s the MVP here too. She’s helped by Alexander and Karaszewski. They write Clark as a competent, hard-working prosecutor who doesn’t realize how deep the pool is until she’s already drowning, rather than the hysterical shrew she was portrayed as by the media. Clark works well here as an audience surrogate. Her belief that O.J. is unquestionably guilty and her utter disbelief at the defense team’s absurd tactics echoes how most of us feel about the case today. But Paulson manages to dig a little deeper than that. She’s a woman in a boy’s playground and her steely resolve to prove herself earns our respect and sympathy even though we know she’ll crash and burn. One of the most affecting scenes so far was the jury seminar where it was reveled that most people view her as a ‘bit of a bitch’. A guy in her position would be called tough and unwavering but she’s called a ‘bitch’. What makes this so upsetting is the fact that feelings like this are probably even more prevalent today than they were back in 1994. On a more fun note, I love how much alcohol she keeps under her desk. If I were in her position, I’d probably have an entire functioning bar in my office.
Connie Britton as Faye Resnick
This is a small element of the show to be sure, but lord oh lord is it a fun one! To see the normally classy Britton step down a bit to play this moronic, fame obsessed drug addict is a hoot and a half. The scene where she pitched her best selling book to two bewildered publishers had me choking with laughter. And if it seems like an unfavorable portrayal, it isn’t. Resnick’s book about her ‘friend’ truly was that insane. The kind of cheap tabloid excrement that would make the most entertaining Lifetime movie. Britton sinks her teeth into the role, relishing every drag on her cigarette and every drop of alcohol as she waxes poetic about cocaine and blowjobs. She’s a complete delight and I would happily watch an entire show about her.
Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran
I was quite worried about this one. Johnnie Cochran has become such a caricature over the years that it seemed all too easy for Ryan Murphy to double down and make him into a full fledged cartoon character. It’s easy to forget what an intelligent, shrewd lawyer he actually was. His tactics, theatrical as they were, did work after all. Vance portrays him as a consummate showman who viewed the courtroom as the ultimate stage but who also fully believed in what he was doing. For Cochran, this was a case as much about race as it was murder. His early career defending clients against police brutality prepared him for it and when opportunity came knocking, there was no way he was going to pass it up. That Vance is able to also portray Cochran as an actual human being with doubts and aggravations is an added bonus.
The Time Period
As mentioned before, Alexander and Karasweski are very good at capturing the feelings of a particular time period and they out-do themselves here. Most people my age can remember glimpses of the O.J. trial if not the whole thing. What I remember most is the Bronco chase. It was the middle of summer, my mom was sick so I was home, the TV was constantly on, and before I knew it I was watching Nordberg from The Naked Gun being chased by police. When it came time for the show to deal with that chase, it did not disappoint. I felt like I was almost transported back to that day. Care was taken with every detail, from the initial stop by two dumbfounded police officers to the record sales at Dominoes Pizza. It worked as a microcosm for the series as a whole, beautifully rendering the way people were simply consumed by this case. It was everywhere. You couldn’t walk down the aisle of a grocery store or turn on the TV without hearing about it. For Christ’s sake, I was seven and I knew what was going on. The show struggles with hindsight in other areas but in its depiction of how this case led us to where we are today, with websites like TMZ posting celebrity gossip every other second while supposedly high mined websites post idiotic think pieces, is pitch perfect.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
David Schwimmer as Robert ‘Ross’ Kardashian
Lets face it: David Schwimmer is not now or has ever been a very good actor. Ask any Friends fan who their favorite character is and I doubt many will say Ross. He’s pretty much the same in whatever role he takes and he’s not helped here by some ham-fisted writing. I feel like this is the character Ryan Murphy had the most influence on, as he comes off like a cartoon more than anyone else. If you take a drink every time he calls O.J. ‘Juice’, you’ll be obliterated before the first commercial break. Schwimmer approaches the role as if Kardashian was perpetually confused by everything and everyone around him. He’s got that same dopey look from the picture above in every scene he’s in. While that may have been the case in real life, it’s not particularly interesting to watch and it’s hard to believe David Schwimmer as anyone other than David Schwimmer.
The Hindsight Problem
I think it’s mostly unfair to criticize works of art that use hindsight to comment on things that really happened. I mean, how could they not? What is fair to criticize is when they do it in an obvious, groan worthy way as The People Vs. O.J. Simpson does when it tries to use the Kardashian children to make points about fame and the desire for media attention. It’s just lazy and all too easy. The scene at the diner where Schwimmer lectured his vile children about fame was cringe-worthy. It was as if the show was saying, “Hey, you see? YOU SEE? They didn’t listen, did they? HAHAHA.” And the other thing is, the show doesn’t need them. It’s already got Resnick and Kato Kaelin if it wants to talk about how fame obsessed society has become, not to mention the circus of a trial that captured everyone’s attention for over a year. Using the Kardashian children screams of Ryan Murphy just wanting to remind people that their father was on Simpson’s defense team. We get it Ryan. Enough is enough.
ON THE FENCE
John Travolta as Robert Shapiro
John Travolta is either the best thing or worst thing on this show and truth be told, I’m not sure it matters. Either way, he’s entertaining as hell. But his utterly absurd portrayal of Shapiro as a used car salesman from 1952 does serve to take me out of the action from time to time. You’ve got all these great actors on the team (Nathan Lane is rock solid as F. Lee Bailey) and they’ll all be discussing the case seriously and with acute attention to detail when all of a sudden Shapiro bursts into the room wearing a Hawaiian shirt and shouting “I’M LEAD ATTORNEY” to the heavens. It’s hilarious but I’m not a hundred percent sold on it being the best narrative choice. His eyebrows are also an incredible distraction. I keep waiting for them to jump off his face to do a song and dance number. I wouldn’t put it past Ryan Murphy. Still, I can’t take my eyes off Travolta so that’s gotta count for something.
And there you have it! I didn’t mention Cuba Gooding Jr. because his performance is good but feels largely peripheral to the rest of the show. Actors like Sterling K. Brown and Bruce Greenwood are also engaging but haven’t done enough to make much of an impression yet. We’ll see how they fare as the season goes on. In any event, I eagerly await the rest of the episodes and can’t wait to see how the case turns out! Oh wait…