Revisiting the case after two decades is vital for what it says about all of us and our culpability in creating a celebrity-driven culture and an American dream shot through with racial resentments
Comparing The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story to American Horror Story is sort of like comparing Beethovens fifth symphony to those Beethoven movies about an affectionate St Bernard. American Crime Story, which debuts on FX on Tuesday 2 February at 10pm EST on FX (and comes to BBC2 later this month), is a wonderfully acted, 10-episode treatise on race, celebrity and justice that is based in fact. American Horror Story is a paean to the supernatural whose greatest purpose is letting washed-up actors and pop stars chew the scenery on the way to winning awards. Really, the only two things the shows have in common are having the words American and Story in their titles.
Well, that and Ryan Murphy, the uber-producer who is responsible for some of the biggest hits on the small screen, including both of these shows, Glee and Nip/Tuck. His newest offering is, just as the title suggests, a semi-fictionalised account of the events surrounding OJ Simpsons arrest for the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend, Ronald Goldman, and his subsequent acquittal 21 years ago. It is a departure for Murphy in many ways and the show, sure to be a hit both commercially and critically, is the finest thing he has produced to date.
The action starts in traditional Law & Order fashion, with an innocent bystander discovering a bloody body while hes out walking his dog. However this is actually how Brown and Goldmans bodies were discovered, and Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding Jr) became a suspect shortly thereafter. Anyone who was out of diapers in the mid-90s knows what happened next: the white Bronco chase down the freeway, the months-long trial that captivated the media and was aired in its entirety on television, the jury voting him not guilty and the subsequent relief or disbelief divided starkly down racial lines.
All of the public parts of the story the news conferences, the opening statements, the press coverage are just as we remember them, played by actors. The private moments Simpson in the back seat of the Bronco, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) talking to his kids about the crime, the relationship between prosecutors Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden (Sterling K Brown) are fictionalised. But its that insight that the trial really needs. We all know what happened, but individual motivations have never been adequately answered and the imagined interactions between lawyers, reporters and even the victims families may well get us a little bit closer to the truth.
Especially intriguing is the behind-the-scenes backbiting and jockeying for position among Simpsons dream team of lawyers: Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), F Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Johnny Cochran (Courtney B Vance) and Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler). They presented a united front for the cameras, but weve never seen quite how they came up with the successful defense that played into the hatred and fear of the LAPD by members of the black community.
While this team is portrayed mostly as a bunch of opportunists using Simpson to help themselves, both Clark and Darden are portrayed very sympathetically as a working mother dealing with pervasive sexism and a black man who is not only isolated in the DAs office but also in his own community for taking on an African American hero like Simpson. After two decades we have enough distance from the events to put them into perspective, but still close enough to the #BlackLivesMatter era to see that much hasnt really changed.
Adapted for television by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People v Larry Flynt) from the book The Run of His Life by Jeffrey Toobin, there arent the surprising plot twists you see from your typical Murphy show. His usual camp and outrageousness is also absent. This might be because Murphy is producer and director rather than also working as a writer here. Having to work with real life events keeps him from the shark-jumping flights of whimsy he employs elsewhere in his oeuvre. Scream Queens its not.
There is still some humor in American Crime Story, particularly when dealing with the ancillary characters like Nicole Simpsons best friend Faye Resnick (Connie Britton), who wrote a much-loathed tell-all shortly after the murders were committed. There is also a scene where the Kids Kardashian chant their last name when they hear it mispronounced (for the last time ever) on national television. The posit that this is where they learned how to play the fame game seems a bit far-fetched, but considering their current circumstances theyre given much more screen time than they probably deserve.
Paulson, a frequent collaborator of Murphys, certainly does the best with her generous amounts of screen time, bringing both guts and pathos to Clark, heretofore known mostly for her wardrobe and bad haircuts. Vance is also spectacular as Cochran. His if it doesnt fit, you must acquit is sure to be a highlight of the series. Travolta, that master of the career revival, paints Shapiro as vain and slimy and loses himself in the role (and the requisite makeup).
The weak link here is the lead role. Cuba Gooding Jr, perhaps the person with the singularly worst post-Oscar career in history, is neither as attractive, as charismatic or as good of an actor as OJ Simpson himself. That creates a void at the center of the drama, one that leaves viewers wondering just how this man could have become a superstar in the first place. He certainly doesnt capture the dual nature of Simpson, a man who could turn on the charm one moment and snap into a fit of murderous rage the next.
Speaking of which, Im curious how those under 30 (about half of the under-50 demographic that advertisers crave) will react to the material. The millennials probably werent as acutely aware of the ins and outs of the trial since they were all watching Doug on Nickelodeon instead of Court TV. Its impossible to erase all the extraneous Simpson information from my brain, so Im curious to see if those unfamiliar with the players will know exactly what is going on with only this show to rely on.
But this isnt really a story about OJ Simpson. In the title, the People come before him, and this is really our story. It is about how all the problematic parts of the American dream converged in a great miscarriage of justice. It is about every one of us, who contributed by watching the trial on television or harboring racial resentments that we might not even be aware of, is culpable in some way of creating this culture that has gone unchanged. That is the real American horror, finally laid bare.
Read more: <a href="http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/feb/02/the-people-v-oj-simpson-ryan-murphy-american-dream">http://www.theguardian.com/us</a>