Who knew what to expect when it was first announced that Ryan Murphy, best known for his trashy yet wildly entertaining programmes, Nip/Tuck, Glee, and American Horror Story, was going to produce a show based on the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson? The pitch-black subject matter – the murder of Simpson’s estranged wife, Nicole Brown, and her companion, Ron Silver – didn’t seem like an obvious fit for the king of campy schlock. That it was produced without the permission of the families involved didn’t bode well, either. And yet The People Versus OJ Simpson turned out to be the TV series of the year, confidently and intelligently teasing out from the events a complex web of connections, telling a story in which intersections of race, sexism and celebrity resulted in Simpson’s acquittal.
Spawning a million highbrow think pieces, the show barely needs an introduction now, as it moves to DVD and VOD. Based on the 1997 book by Jeffrey Toobin, The Run of His Life, and with a starry cast including John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer and Courtney B. Vance, it was always going to be a high profile affair, and, thanks to a razor-sharp script and sensitive direction, the critical response to it has been universally positive. Examining a heinous crime, the show somehow manages to weave throughout it a wry humour, while simultaneously being well aware of the many sensitivities of the case. It’s a high-wire balancing act, which is pulled off with aplomb.
LA has, aptly, the look of a TV movie about it here, exacerbated by the dated clothes and hairstyles of the protagonists, and each episode is tightly wound, looking at different aspects of the case from many different perspectives. As Marcia Clark, Paulson shines, imbuing the lawyer – a figure of ridicule in the media at the time of the trial – with pathos, intelligence and integrity. Going through an acrimonious divorce and battling for custody of her children, while also prosecuting in the most high-profile murder case of the decade (at least), she is pulled in all ways at once. Initially cocky, with a mass of evidence that made the case seem rock solid, she is ground down by the tactics of the defence, who were completely willing – nay, eager – to exploit the incendiary race relations of the time, at a point when the population of LA was still recovering from the televised beating of Rodney King and the resulting riots two years before. The programme also examines the way in which a hostile and sexist media slowly but inexorably shredded her confidence, and Paulson expertly portrays the vulnerability hiding behind Clark’s intellect, and the difficulties a high-powered woman in the public eye is forced to endure.
Sterling K. Brown shines, too, in a quiet, unshowy performance as Clark’s co-council, Chris Darden. Like Clark, Darden is shown to be a man of deeply held convictions, yet is demonised as a kind of Uncle Tom figure, the token black man prosecuting a sporting icon beloved in the black community, a community OJ had nonetheless long since spurned in favour of white high society. Darden is well aware of the irony that it is he who is being challenged to prove his worth beyond the colour of his skin.
The side of the defence is equally fascinating. Travolta plays Robert Shapiro, all barky brashness, an unsympathetic role he seems to revel in. Vance utterly embodies Johnnie Cochran, and gives him a depth his natural showmanship masked in real life. Schwimmer, meanwhile, as Robert Kardashian, is at once a gullible sap, bewildered, naive, trusting, and ultimately somewhat broken by the dawning realisation that his long-time buddy could be capable of such a crime. When his faith in the man he called his friend is finally shattered, it’s quietly but powerfully moving, lightened slightly by the life lessons he tries to teach his kids, who, of course, grew up to absolutely embody the kind of fame culture that is examined here.
As OJ, Cuba Gooding Jr. lacks the quarterback’s sheer physicality, but he does capture the aggressive petulance and self-absorption of the man. In a brief turn, meanwhile, Connie Britton steals her scenes as Faye Resnick, Nicole’s friend who would quickly cash in on her proximity to the crimes by selling her story as a hastily written book. A dark humour permeates the show as the venality of many of its characters is subtly dissected.
Although we know the outcome, so obvious is OJ’s guilt throughout the 10 episodes, the verdict is possibly more shocking now than it was then. And yet the series, too, shows how, within the context of mid-90s LA, such an outcome was almost inevitable. It remains deeply ironic that a police department whose long-standing racism problem would result in setting a black man free, but the result was also indicative of the power of money and fame, and the sway such things have in modern America. Certainly, the programme makers leave us in no doubt on where they stand on the question of OJ’s innocence. At once a look at the recent past and also a comment on the world in which we live today, The People versus OJ a clear-eyed dissection of a specific time and place where so many modern-day issues coalesced to let the quarterback walk free, and the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Silver go unpunished. This is one of those programmes that genuinely deserves the term “must-see”.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is now available on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
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