Review: The People v. O.J. Simpson and American Crime Aim for Ambiguity

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro in The People v. O. J. Simpson.
Ray Mickshaw—FX David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro in The People v. O. J. Simpson.

Two anthology series, on FX and ABC, challenge viewer preconceptions like nothing else on TV

The O.J. Simpson trial is still with us—or at least that’s the case argued by the new miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Debuting Feb. 2, the FX drama is incisively written toward a single conclusion: that the football star’s 1995 trial for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman (of which he was acquitted) was the inception point for our current celebrity-media complex.

This point of view has its flaws. The trial was a once-in-a-lifetime anomaly; the culture has grown more sophisticated since the days when every other commentator on the “trial of the century” basked in instant stardom. But the players in this drama are absolutely certain they are right, making The People v. O.J. Simpson a show utterly of this moment.

Based on New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the series begins with the bodies being discovered and winds through the next 16 months of tabloid headlines and courtroom maneuvering. The show’s executive producer is the often gleefully campy Ryan Murphy (from whose American Horror Story franchise the series takes its name), but it puts on a deeply grave face about life-and-death events and how America metabolized them.

For instance, we see O.J. (played by Cuba Gooding Jr., in his best role and best performance since his Jerry Maguire Oscar win) weeping during the infamous Bronco chase and gain new sympathy for him—or at least for him as he perceives himself. We also see TV control rooms around the country put the chase in front of a mass audience that was ready to gorge yet still unaware of how enormous its appetite would become.

The show is nourished by Toobin’s contemporaneous reporting, which dives deep into the supporting characters’ motivations. Here, defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who became such a punch line during the trial that he later was parodied at length on Seinfeld, is motivated by the racism he himself has experienced; Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, a standout among the cast) is a “bad” prosecutor, in part because of the relentless distraction of press fixation on her appearance and attitude. When she takes the media’s unsolicited advice and changes her hair, it feels like a momentary triumph, until one realizes the new look, along with its wearer, will just be torn down anew.

Some viewers might be turned off by Crime Story’s focus on celebrity and its winking references to the family of Simpson defense attorney Robert Kardashian (Friends star David Schwimmer), of which there are too many. The point, though, stands: the Simpson trial was fueled by fame and, troublingly, generated fame for those involved. We see a similar trajectory in the Netflix sensation Making a Murderer, in which the trial of Steven Avery became a story with clear-cut heroes and villains. Just substitute the purportedly outmatched Judge Lance Ito for the supposedly evil district attorney Ken Kratz.

The Simpson trial was watched live, daily, by a rapt nation, thanks to Ito’s decision to allow cameras in the courtroom. But in today’s even more saturated media culture, who has the time to follow a trial from beginning to end? What Making a Murderer and its comrades in the true-crime genre—including HBO’s The Jinx and the first season of the podcast Serial—share is an interest in getting the juiciest bits of otherwise obscure murder cases out to the public in a snackable format: Making a Murderer ran for 10 episodes, Serial Season 1 for 12, and The Jinx for an easily downed six. But inevitably these shows are slanted simply by the question of access. It’s no slam against the Making a Murderer documentarians to suggest that their series was colored by having no access to the prosecution. Consequently, we see the defense’s side in detail and fall in love with trending-topic Wisconsin lawyer Dean Strang or sign a petition urging Avery’s exoneration (as some 470,000 fans did).

These true-crime series fill a real need, one extant since Sophocles’ days: to see a story through to the point of catharsis or, failing that, ironic tragedy. But I’m more comfortable with the wider view of The People v. O.J. Simpson, and not merely because it’s fictionalized (if only lightly). The degree of access Toobin enjoyed flourishes on the screen. Viewers may disagree with the outcome of the trial, but they’re unlikely to go on quixotic Reddit journeys to relitigate the case.

The breadth of The People v. O.J. Simpson is shared by ABC’s drama American Crime. Its wide-ranging ambition (rare for a broadcast network) was nearly its downfall: this anthology series overcame a first season that was TV’s answer to the film Crash. Depicting multiple victims and arguing that everyone is guilty for society’s ills, the show took a moralizing tone that grew exhausting.

In its second season, American Crime is remarkably better. It’s more tightly focused on a case of rape at an Indiana private school in which every player—victim, victim’s mom, alleged perpetrator, school headmistress, bystanders—gets more than one chance to have his or her say. Its status as a work of pure fiction allows race, class and sexuality to shape the narrative in creative ways, and the characters are more than just placeholders for what we’d like to believe about the case. They are fleshed out enough to act unpredictably, seemingly on their own. Regina King, who won an Emmy for the first season, delivers another astounding performance as a mother who is all too aware of what lies in wait for black sons and doesn’t want hers to fall short of her dreams for him. Is she snobbish or just strict? You choose.

There is a subtle pleasure in not knowing what to think. But it’s more fun to be right. It’s unsurprising that American Crime, a look at one case that prismatically shows every imaginable perspective, is undersung and little watched, while Making a Murderer, relying on a single perspective, thrives as a watercooler topic.

The People v. O.J. Simpson bridges that gap. It’s so artfully reliant on multiple viewpoints that those who believe Simpson should have gone to jail will get what they want. So will those who believe he is innocent (Gooding’s performance goes a long way here) or at least was rightfully acquitted. As for those uninitiated millennial viewers, tuning in to see the guy from Friends as dad to Kim and Khloé? They’ll have to learn to live with ambiguity, an aspect of our true-crime fixation in too short supply.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. E.T. on FX; American Crime airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. E.T. on ABC

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