The People v. O.J. Simpson Review
Anytime that I take on a new criminal case I always ask the client a question. Now, I won't be judgmental, but -- I think it's crucial that the attorney and the client are truthful with each other. So, anything you tell me is completely confidential and will never leave this room.
So, O.J., did you do it? (Robert Shapiro)
There was a moment around five hours into The People v. O.J. Simpson where I finally realized how I felt about the show. For the first four episodes, I enjoyed the entertainment, but I didn't sense that one overwhelming thing that a television program needs to take it over the top. I was searching for that elusive trait diligently as the minutes passed. Sometimes, even marginal shows can succeed or even explode with the right performance. Think of The Blacklist, which still does relatively solid numbers because of James Spader. What stood out about The Mentalist outside of Simon Baker? Later, you might have fallen for other characters, but everything in life, including preferences, require a catalyst to spark a flame.
You might be interested in a woman, but haven't ever spoken to her. In that case, the driving force is your eyes and her appearance. Perhaps you see a celebrity you really like endorsing a product. Leo might be a catalyst for a woman for the attraction side and a positive push for a man, who wants to BE Leo. Similarly, when I see Leo constantly jawing about climate change, if I'm a conservative, I might back away from the box office and reconsider seeing The Revenant.
What the hell does this have to do with American Crime Story on FX, which premieres on Tuesday night? The catalyst to watch The People v. O.J. Simpson is also precisely the thing that may keep the show from finding a lasting hold in your brain. Or...maybe not.
That's not to say the show is bad, because it's not, and that would be far too simplistic a view. It's more accurate to say the show is exactly what you expect it to be, with nothing surprising. If you've read any of my tweets on the show @GuyNamedJason, you no doubt noticed I continually referred to the idea that if someone wants to like it, they likely will find plenty of reason to do so. In that way, I enjoyed it, but it didn't grip me.
The People v. O.J. Simpson's biggest hurdle is that its subject matter is so well known that even the most intimate or minor details have been in the public sphere for nearly a decade. We've grown accustomed to twists and turns, and although those things are there to be found, the vast majority of the country has already seen them all. The series is based primarily on Jeffrey Toobin's book, "The Run of His Life," and Toobin serves as a consultant along with co-creators Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (Ed Wood, Man on the Moon, The People vs. Larry Flynt).
Back to the inherent pitfalls in developing an adaptation of such a famous slice of history, it's not that the Bronco or the glove or the race issue are commonalities; it's that Fuhrman may or may not have been inaccurately depicted, Nicole had a shady life, Chris Darden wasn't ready, Shapiro wanted to deal, or even the words Al Cowlings used on the phone during the famous car chase. All of those bullet points are entirely unsurprising and well documented, or at least alleged.
Nothing is left to be unearthed. In the six episodes FX provided to critics, I witnessed not one piece of information I didn't already know. Admittedly, as I was in high school, I watched every second of the case, and remember well my teacher turning on the television during class when the verdict was read. I recall half my class erupting into cheers and saying, "We did it!" I remember where I was during the Bronco chase; hanging out with friends playing tennis and coming home to see the last few hours live.
I even recall the names Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren; neither of whom I'd ever laid eyes on before, becoming stars as they served as CNN legal analysts during the trial. I'm curious to see if either pops up at some point, particularly the latter, as she works for NewsCorp.
As for the missing "something" in the show, I realized in episode five that it didn't exist. Once I resigned myself to the limitations of the facts alone, I was finally able to really sit back and just enjoy the trip back in time. There's only so much this show can do without treading into fictional territory. In terms of style, the show has it in spades. It's slick, with definite tricks that helped to define some of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's earlier vehicles, from Nip Tuck to Glee and of course American Horror Story. It's not as over the top as Scream Queens in terms of the color palette, but it's a big budget production and a vivid, impressive visual ride.
The story isn't constantly engrossing if it's still firmly in your memory bank, unless, like me, you were glued to it originally. For younger viewers who are old enough to see it, the experience might be addicting. For us in our 30s and 40s, we can reminisce on one of the most important news events of the decade. But, many people will simply see it as "been there, done that" and find more value in the acting than the narrative. I'll admit though, it's more addicting than well-trodden territory should reasonably be, and that's a big feather in the cap of the writers and the cinematography.
It's definitely a show featuring a little more style than substance, but one thing that does bear additional exploration is the cast, which is superb. While John Travolta's Robert Shapiro is uneven and at times, you wonder whom he's actually playing, almost everyone else nails his or her role. Courtney B. Vance found my radar in a one-off Law and Order episode where he played a stockbroker accused of murdering his boss, using the concept of "black rage" as a defense. In The People v. O.J. Simpson, he shines again, this time as Johnnie Cochran. It's a pitch perfect performance in every way and one for which he may end up with hardware on his mantle.
Possibly my favorite performance, along with Vance, is Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden. He's one of the only likable figures in the entire mess, and you feel sorry for him as he's put in bad situations and still has to answer to the neighborhood who believes the police are out to get minorities in the wake of the Rodney King beating. Another reason Darden stands out in the series is because, overall, we recall much less about him than almost anybody else.
We all remember Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Kris Jenner (Selma Blair), and Faye Resnick (Connie Britton), among others, in pretty clear detail, but despite how often we saw Darden during the case, other than being one of the losers and also a scapegoat, specifics have faded from memory. In that way, Brown's key scenes are more important, because we want those reminders. Plus, he does a fantastic job in finding the right voice and the right stature to play a smart man presumably in over his head. Incidentally, all the aforementioned actors are very good as well.
Marcia Clark was going to be tough in some ways, because other than the hair, the smokes, and the stories of overconfidence and rigidity, you don't recall much about her voice or certain gesturing. Sarah Paulson sounds like Sarah Paulson, but she's completely believable as the assistant District Attorney who made several missteps and moved Darden into his spot to try and soften portions of the race issue on her side. Never did I watch Paulson and lose track of her being an actress, but she's awfully good. And, just like the real people, Clark is obnoxious and a stark contrast to Darden in virtually every way.
Cuba Gooding Jr. needed a role like O.J. Simpson in 2016. He's a talented guy who disappeared for a while after his Academy Award winning role in Jerry Maguire. Remember Boat Trip? The raspy, floaty Simpson voice isn't easy to pull off, but Cuba does get pretty close. He sounds like himself, but with enough emphysema in it (figuratively) to make it seem appropriate. His facial expressions, particularly the way he uses his mouth when not speaking, are better than the words. He LOOKS like O.J. more than he sounds like O.J., but both facets of the performance are rock solid.
Each episode ends with either a famous point in the investigation or a good cliffhanger moment. Again, if I had no knowledge of the case, I'd have been much more invested in these moments. The second episode focused entirely on the day of the Bronco incident, which both makes sense and also feels like too much, only because we see several scenes of Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) talking to various people or attempting to calm Simpson family members or things that no doubt happened, but aren't exactly riveting to watch.
Scenes inside the Bronco with Simpson and Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) are well placed, even if they feel overly dramatic, particularly some of the moments where A.C. has to talk O.J. from shooting himself in the head.
Most of the bigger moments of the entire story are a little overwrought with Hollywoodisms, but are nonetheless treated with major importance. Throughout the first half of the season, get used to haunting, droning music underneath far more scenes than necessary or long shots of an actor's face to sell a reaction. The case was salacious and slimy and full of ugliness. The show is full of those things also, but you can pick out a couple of sequences where it feels like a bad piece of fiction, something more appropriate for an after school special or a Lifetime movie. One scene with Kato Kaelin (Billy Magnussen) shirtless on a beachside trail getting first a positive and then an immediate negative comment from passing individuals is a particular lowlight. It feels unrealistic, because of the rapidity of the two altercations. A car full of attractive women who flash their breasts at him in the same setting borders on ridiculous, but you might chuckle.
In truth, the entire story, from the crime, to the investigation, to the cast of characters, to the trial, and ultimately the verdict and aftermath, all of it was absurd. Maybe those scenes that look fake or pathetic are more accurate than I originally gave them credit for and thus, because it's THIS case, it's also right for the show. The O.J. Simpson fiasco was a complete and utter circus, as is FX's limited series chronicling it. I mean come on...the Kardashians were at the center of the early portion of the coverage. Schwimmer does a great job playing Robert, who almost seems sympathetic until you remember his children.
I expect multiple Emmy nominations for the performances, and possibly for the series. The acting in the series is strong, with very few exceptions, and while it's a subject we all know so much about already, The People v. O.J. Simpson generally does a good job in retelling the events in episodic format. One issue with the front half of the season is a lack of focus on the victims. One of the most powerful spots in the opening episodes is a conversation between Clark and Fred Goldman (Joseph Siravo), in which the victim's father breaks down as he attempts to describe how his son's death is an afterthought because of Nicole's name.
The show needs more scenes like this one, because it gives a deeper perspective from the other side. The entertaining half is the O.J. side and the oversaturation of celebrity and tabloid involvement, no question, but the viciousness of the crime and the tragedy for three families, respect for the dead, is almost entirely absent. Hopefully that will change in the back end of the series. Two people were brutally murdered outside their home. That fact should never be on the back burner. The balance would greatly enhance the overall effect of the product.
Back to my tweets about finding a way to like it if you go in with the right attitude, it's all based on what you expect to see. Provided you're aware this isn't Breaking Bad, or Lost, or Game of Thrones (for non-book people) and as a result, amazing revelations aren't lurking around every corner, you're jumping in with your eyes open. If you just want to live the story again, you should generally be pleased with what's available to you in the series. It's an easy watch and one that might lead to some nostalgic discussions with family and friends. If you somehow don't know about the saga of O.J. Simpson and the deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, I'd say you should definitely watch, because you won't believe that this nonsense actually happened.
It's an entertaining romp, sometimes rushed and occasionally limited, but it hits more than it misses. With that said, it's definitely something I plan to finish and have enjoyed watching thus far. The performances, past those already mentioned, are worth setting your DVR to see, even if the story isn't an obsession for you. It would have been so easy to blow this project, and that didn't happen here, even though I hope more of the victim side of the story is featured in later episodes. (I may write weekly entries as the show progresses, particularly if the series finds a large audience.)
Know going in that it's exactly what you think it is, and as long as you're satisfied with that fact, you'll enjoy it. If it collects for a few weeks on the DVR, it also plays well as a binge watch. I very much like the concept behind the show and would be curious to know what a Season 2 or 3 might look like. There's no shortage of high profile legal cases, from political scandals to the craziness of Casey Anthony and Jodi Arias to, gasp, Steven Avery. Or, perhaps the story gets written next time around, rather than recounted.
While it's certainly not John Adams or Band of Brothers, with a stellar cast and a slick presentation, it's unquestionably still worth hopping in the Bronco next week. Maybe stay off the 405.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, airs Tuesdays at 10 PM ET/PT on FX. The series premieres on February 2.
I'm @GuyNamedJason. YOU KNOW WHO I AM, DAMMIT!