TV Review - American Crime Story: The People Vs. OJ

Former football star and actor OJ Simpson was on trial for murdering his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman who both died in a brutal and bloody stabbing back in June 1994. The incidents leading to his arrest and the subsequent, court case have been deemed the "trial of the century." The televised, court hearing was one of the most-watched and most-dissected broadcasts ever. The verdict also revealed the racial divide in the country. The whole thing was a pop culture phenomenon unlike no other and its ripple effects are still felt today.

In many ways, producing this series, which recounts that phenomenon, makes sense, but, in many ways, it doesn't make sense. The series comes across as some argued John Carter (2012) came across. Some argued that John Carter felt derivative of a lot of action-adventure, science-fiction or fantasy stories, even though its origins pre-date so many, if not all those stories. For example, some argued John Carter ripped off Star Wars (1977), when in reality the source material for John Carter pre-dated Star Wars.

The same could be said about this production. It feels so derivative of so many true-crime, legal dramas or documentaries. Despite the pedigree involved, it feels less-than or not as good, even though the source material pre-dates a lot of them and even gave rise to most of them.

Even something as recent as Netflix's Making a Murderer, the construction of which arguably takes as much from the broadcast of OJ Simpson's trial, feels more in the spirit of that pop-culture phenomenon than this adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin's book, "The Run of His Life." Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, this series allows the addressing of celebrity culture, racial politics or racial tensions in the criminal justice system in a more direct way than Making a Murderer, but that Netflix documentary can galvanize people more than any talk about OJ Simpson can, now 20 years later.

At this point, the issue feels more like ancient history in that even black people who were more in support of OJ Simpson at the time have now settled on the conclusion that he was more than likely guilty. There will always be those who claim not to be sure either way or point to the fact that he wasn't convicted in criminal court, but there doesn't seem to be any defenders of OJ's innocence who say so in public.

Given that, there really isn't much to glean from this production, which one can't get in more nuanced ways from Making a Murderer or the more subtle ABC series American Crime by Oscar-winner John Ridley. Directed by Ryan Murphy (Eat Pray Love and The Normal Heart), this production is more in-line with Murphy's TV shows like Glee or American Horror Story in that it's more about the spectacle. It's lacking in musical numbers or gory special effects, but it makes up for that with Murphy's usual love of big, over-the-top, acting performances.

Chief among them is Oscar-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. who plays the titular character, OJ Simpson himself. Murphy insists or allows Gooding to mimic a lot of the same choices from Jerry Maguire (1996). Gooding is loud and can be all over-the-map. He was way more restrained under Cameron Crowe's direction, or he properly balanced Tom Cruise's swings back-and-forth, but here, Gooding is just unchained.

This is only evident in the first few episodes. As the 10-episode series moves into the trial, Gooding will obviously have to take a back-seat, as OJ mostly sat quietly through the trial. Therefore, it will be seen how much Gooding is toned down in the latter half of this series.

Sarah Paulson (12 Years a Slave and Carol) co-stars as Marcia Cross, the prosecuting attorney trying to put OJ in jail. Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) also co-stars as Johnnie Cochran, the defense attorney who eventually takes over and works to keep OJ free. Their performances aren't too pronounced at first, but there is a boldness to them, which Murphy could insist or simply allow to go big or over-the-top.

This might be Alexander and Karaszewski's writing, but in typical, Ryan Murphy fashion, the pacing feels rushed. The series breezes through everything with little establishment, so a lot of it can feel as though it has no weight or resonance. So many characters are thrown at the screen in the first, two episodes, and it's unlikely most of any of them will stick. Later episodes might nail more of these people down, but it feels too much of a whirlwind, which is probably intentional.

What will most likely stick more than anything else is John Travolta who co-stars as Robert Shapiro, the lawyer who represents OJ first, before the trial starts. Travolta oozes a slickness and confidence, which makes his character seem to possess a kind of air to him. It's not necessarily snobbery, but it could come across as such. Immediately, you feel that he is a skilled attorney or even fixer for the stars. It's an outstanding performance, which could garner Travolta an Emmy nomination and possible win.

Other interesting, if not curious performances include David Schwimmer (Friends) as Robert Kardashian, the best friend of OJ, Billy Magnussen (The Big Short and Bridge of Spies) as Kato Kaelin, the ditzy house-guest of OJ, and Steven Pasquale (Rescue Me and The Good Wife) as Mark Fuhrman, the police detective who was one of the first on the crime scene in Brentwood, the wealthy suburb of Los Angeles.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-MA-LV.
Running Time: 1 hr.
Tuesdays at 10PM on FX.

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