The 10 highlights from FX's brilliant 'The People vs. O.J. Simpson'
FX's critically acclaimed miniseries, The People vs. O.J. Simpson: America Crime Story, came to a satisfying, but unfortunate, end Tuesday night (has it really been 10 weeks?) with the not-so-shocking conclusion that O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of the two murder charges leveled against him. With the show wrapped up, we look back at its 10 best highlights. (!!!Spoiler alert for those who are worried about a 21-year-old event getting spoiled!!!)
10. John Travolta as Robert Shapiro (and Ross Kardashian)
At first, I figured it'd be impossible for John Travolta to be anybody but John Travolta with weird makeup and odd affection. But somehow he pulls it off, making Robert Shapiro a scummy, yet empathetic, ringleader of the O.J. circus. You didn't feel bad that Johnnie Cochran took over the defense, but you felt that Shapiro did.(You also felt bad that he looked like Frankenstein in the middle of a series of facelifts.) But the transition to the real-life character was one Cuba Gooding Jr. rarely made until the final episode, for whatever reason. (Maybe it was due to the unavoidable fact that he looks nothing like Simpson, either in look or stature.) Don't get me wrong, Gooding's performance was fine - his cocksureness while on "the stand" at the mock trial was a clear highlight - and it felt like his O.J. got better every week (especially in the finale), but it always felt like we were watching Rod Tidwell - his character from Jerry Maguire - on trial instead of Simpson. Maybe it was better that way. Inhabiting the role of someone who's still alive and so well known is nearly impossible. Then you have David Schwimmer who was quite good as Robert Kardashian, who was mostly silent in public throughout the whole trial, as we find out later in the series, for good reason.
9. Keeping suspense and surprise in a story we all know.
It's one thing to make a movie like Titanic, where everybody knows what happens at the end, but you can liberally fill the rest of the story with characters both real and imagined to build toward that moment. The O.J. show had to deal with the fact that anybody over the age of 12 vividly remembers the start, middle and ending of the trial. It's cultural history.
We all know what happened with the gloves, for instance, but showing that Shapiro had the idea to put them on, while F. Lee Bailey goaded Chris Darden into asking O.J. to do it was the fresh information for viewers. In other scenes, the show took dramatic license, like the conversation between O.J. and the late Robert Kardashian, which cheekily took place in the bedroom of Kardashian's daughter, "Kimmy."
8. The Colombian necktie
The best scene of the show, which actually happened according to Jeffrey Toobin, the author of the show's source material, was when Alan Dershowitz, the famed lawyer who was like a sixth-man on the Dream Team, was watching the trial with a small class at Harvard Law. While the unflappable detective Tom Lange was on the stand, Dershowitz, watching from 3,000 miles away, pauses, smiles, then rushes over to the fax machine where he scribbled down two words: Colombian necktie. It's a reference to a calling card of Colombian drug cartels in which a head is nearly decapitated from the body, as happened to both victims in the O.J. case. Cochran receives the fax, smiles and then questions Lange on whether he's heard of the gruesome technique. What happened next is irrelevant. The mere question planted a seed in the heads of jurors who, throughout the trial, were never given a real motive by the defense. (Getting framed is one thing, but O.J.'s team never tried to explain why there was a crime scene with which to frame him.)
7. Marcia, Marcia, Marcia
If the series' sixth episode wasn't its best, it was certainly its most revelatory. The story of Marcia Clark, a dogged prosecutor fighting an uphill battle due to the casual sexism of the time from ordinary people ("I wouldn't want to be her boyfriend," some clown says in a focus group) to Johnnie Cochran, who argues that Clark's ongoing divorce is messing with the trial, an absurd claim that received the withering comeback it deserved.
Some of what's portrayed was well known back then - Clark's wardrobe, the fascination with her hair (Jennifer Aniston had nothing on her), those topless photos - while others were new to anyone but the most dogged O.J. scholars, in particular an insensitive line from a cashier about Clark's purchase of feminine products. (Clark wrote about it in her book.) The O.J. trial was such a circus that the real victims (Ron and Nicole) were overshadowed and the secondary ones, like Marcia Clark, whose real lives were ignored as they were treated as nothing but character's on a television show. Just because you saw her on TV every day doesn't mean you knew Marcia Clark. Yet when Sarah Paulson, playing Clark, sinks down on the floor at the end of the episode, you felt like you did.
6. Exposed (or forgotten) truths
5. The jury insight
For anyone, like myself, who wondered how on earth a group of people could be cooped up in sequestration for eight months (the longest stretch in American judicial history), the episode focusing on the jury's experience, and how the lawyers tried to manipulate the system to favor their causes, was a fascinating glimpse into a mostly untold tale. The producers give the jury sympathetic play even though they, you know, found OJ. not guilty, but it was the right choice. How could you not feel for two dozen men and women (the 12 jurors plus alternates, many of whom were getting thrown out by the day) taken away from their families and lives to sit and listen to Barry Scheck harangue Dennis Fung about DNA evidence for a week?
I still have two major questions though: First, how was any juror supposed to go into the trial without having formed an opinion about O.J. Simpson? The selection happened months after the murders. Second, keeping jurors away from newspapers, magazines and TV (the Martin vs. Seinfeld argument was great - though I suppose they had to ban that one Seinfeld episode that imitated the trial, or anything with Jackie Chiles) is one thing. But how could police enforce silence on family visits, some of which were of the conjugal nature? I mean, we saw jurors shopping books. A husband or wife wasn't mentioning how much of a jerk Mark Fuhrman was in a post-coital moment?
Also, if you were wondering in the finale whether the salute from a juror to O.J. actually took place, here's what the New York Times wrote at the time:
4. The attention to detail
Everything was pitch pefect, from the whited-out SONY branding on the back on Lance Ito's computer to the streak of gray in Robert Kardashian's hair to the scene of Simpson putting on the gloves and giving his best acting performance since The Towering Inferno. Then there were the things we didn't know, like when Kardashian and Theo Huxtable go through O.J.'s garment bag, which inexplicably remained unopened for months. That filmmakers were able to ratchet up the suspense for that moment (and the dozens of others we already knew the result of) was impressive.
We saw how the first jury vote was 10-2 right out of the gate, though we didn't see how quickly the two acquiesced, which was a small disappointment. ("They'd discussed this case less than anybody in America," Travolta's Shapiro said when the verdict came back so quickly. The show focused on it just as much.) Also, for the first 10 hours of the show, I was wondering whether they'd get the clerk's nervous botch of O.J.'s name while she read the final verdict. Of course they did.
3. Marcia Clark's bar room trial
If Marcia Clark could have spoken to the jury like she did to Chris Darden's friends in Oakland, explaining the impossibility of a cover-up and the certainty of evidence incriminating OJ., she'd have won and O.J. would be in jail for two murders instead of the trumped-up charges he's in for now. But the scene ended with a perfect summation of the entire 10 hours of the program and year-and-a-half of events. After Clark goes through the case, using tableware as guides and making a 100% unflappable case, one of Darden's friends, respecting the effort but still doubting the LAPD, says, with faithful belief, "maybe."
2. The acting
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran were the show-stealers, but it was an All-Star team all the way down the list, from big parts like Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey to bit roles such as Mad Men's Robert Morse throwing off a few lines and providing background reaction as crime writer Dominick Dunne. Rob Morrow was great as Barry Sheck, Connie Britton was wonderful in a so-quick-you-can-barely-see-her performance as Nicole's opportunistic friend Faye Resnick and Selma Blair had the "honor" of playing future reality show matriarch Kris Jenner, back when she was best known as Bruce Jenner's wife and Nicole's best friend.
Cochran was the meatiest role - with his smarts, wit, bombastic nature and sheer delight in being the center of attention in the biggest show in town. Playing him must have been an actor's dream. But if the real Cochran teed it up, Courtney Vance hit it out of the park, Mark McGwire-on-steroids style. Had it been Vance delivering Cochran's closing statement, the jurors would have deliberated for 45 minutes instead of four hours.
But if I were voting for an Emmy, I'd give mine to Sterling Brown, who played Chris Darden, a man trapped between two worlds and doing his best to prove his worth to everyone. It was an introspective, quiet role and Brown nailed it.
We didn't get much of the best two actors on set playing off each other, but two scenes, set outside the courthouse, were the show's versions of De Niro and Pacino in Heat. In the first (shown below), Clark big-times the big-timing Cochran, while in the second he brings a peace offering - a cup of coffee intended as a white flag in their battle over the makeup of the jury. Those scenes showed the skill of the best performances, especially Vance, who could dial it up to 11 as the courtroom Cochran but could also bring it back to show that it was an act as much as anything else.
1. The enormity of pulling off a 10-hour series about the first great American reality TV show
Don't be fooled by how easy the filmmakers made it look. This was a series that could have easily turned into as much of a circus as the trial it covered. But good writing, excellent pacing and that grade-A acting made it all work, thanks to a tongue-in-cheek attitude that showed the series didn't take itself too seriously, while at the same time treating the whole affair with the mindfulness it deserved. It's hard to pull off dramatic and campy, but this show did it. It's even harder to recreate old clips that we've seen hundreds of times and hardest yet to throw in new information without making it sound like exposition. Again, the show nailed it.
How a 10-part series (that's like five movies!) about the longest-running public spectacle in modern American history could surprise so much is a testament both to the filmmakers and the surreal nature of the trial. When it hits Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime, The People vs. O.J. Simpson will instantly be the most binge-watchable show on the service. What better praise can you give than that?