‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Pilot Recap: “Money Is the Only Way to Get Justice”

Not to be confused with ABC’s anthology drama series ‘American Crime’, the FX network has its own new anthology drama series called ‘American Crime Story’. The difference between them is that this one focuses on true-crime events rather than completely fictionalized stories. In an audacious move, the first season tackles the so-called Trial of the (20th) Century, ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’.

The show comes from Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, producers of FX’s ‘American Horror Story’ and a number of other notable series. Murphy directed the pilot episode. Riding a pretty successful track record for hit shows, they’ve assembled a huge all-star cast to play the famous faces that anyone old enough to have lived through the events will vividly remember.

Cuba Gooding, Jr., no doubt desperate to redeem his faltering career, takes on the role of O.J., which he plays with stony-faced gloom interrupted by occasional violent fits of rage. He’s mostly pretty good, but doesn’t look physically intimidating enough to be O.J.

Sarah Paulson is ambitious prosecutor Marcia Clark, who eagerly jumps into the case thinking it will make her career, but is also distracted by her own messy divorce.

A heavily made-up John Travolta is O.J.’s lead attorney, Robert Shapiro. He delivers a very mannered performance that comes across as more wax mannequin than human being.

With a goofy hairdo, David Schwimmer is O.J.’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian, portrayed as a clueless dolt who refuses to believe that O.J. would ever hurt a fly.

Steven Pasquale from ‘Rescue Me’ is the notorious LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman.

The most entertaining bit of casting is Courtney B. Vance as the flamboyant Johnnie Cochran. He’s exactly what you want him to be.

Practically every scene is littered with recognizable cameos: Bruce Greenwood as District Attorney Gil Garcetti, Selma Blair as Kardashian’s ex-wife Kris Jenner, Connie Britton as Faye Resnick (friend of the victim Nicole Brown Simpson). More notable stars will turn up in later episodes, including Nathan Lane as famed attorney F. Lee Bailey.

If anything, all this stunt-casting is distracting. It’s hard to get lost in the story when you’re constantly remarking, “Hey, look who’s playing… !”

Getting lost in the story will perhaps be the series’ biggest challenge. The story is so familiar and every detail so ingrained in the cultural consciousness that the pilot episode often feels like it’s going through the motions of telling you stuff you already know. The network ads promise that the show will give viewers an unprecedented insider’s perspective, but at least so far, most of the behind-closed-doors stuff is exactly what you already imagine happened.

Murphy directs the pilot like a slick procedural thriller, systematically taking us from the discovery of the bodies (Simpson’s ex-wife and her boyfriend), the initial police investigation and the evidence that points to O.J. as the culprit, the prosecutors building their case, and an arrest warrant being issued. The episode ends with a distraught O.J. attempting to flee justice in the infamous white Ford Bronco.

The first episode doesn’t make any proclamations about O.J.’s guilt or innocence, but it’s my understanding that the book this season is based on (‘The Run of His Life’ by Jeffrey Toobin) comes down on the side of guilty.

I’ll be honest that I had a lot more interest in watching this show before I realized that all ten of the O.J. episodes would be written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriters behind disappointing, formulaic bio-pics ‘Man on the Moon’, ‘Auto Focus’ and ‘The People vs. Larry Flint’ (not to mention flat-out dumb movies like ‘Problem Child’ and ‘That Darn Cat’). Alexander and Karaszewski have a habit of fictionalizing their true stories for the sake of entertainment. Already, certain details here ring false, such as Marcia Clark claiming to have never heard of O.J. Simpson, or a scene where Kardashian begs O.J. not to commit suicide in his daughter Kimmy’s bedroom (the walls of which are plastered with New Kids on the Block posters). Both of these are good for easy laughs, but I don’t buy them. Maybe they come from true accounts, but they feel made-up.

At the end of the pilot, I’m left on the fence with this show. It’s certainly slick and polished, and Sarah Paulson is particularly good as Marcia Clark, but do I really need to live through the O.J. Simpson trial again? I’ll have to watch another episode or two and see how I feel about it then.

Grade: B

14 comments

  1. Shannon Nutt

    I was a huge fan of both THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLINT and MAN ON THE MOON, so I’m going to have to check this out. Haven’t been a big fan of Ryan Murphy TV shows though.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      I didn’t care for either of those movies. Man on the Moon did a great disservice to Andy Kaufman by forcing his life story into a standard bio-pic formula, and I couldn’t get past the stunt-casting of Jim Carrey impersonating his favorite comic. People vs. Larry Flynt is just a huge pile of horseshit that tries to turn a truly repugnant human being into some sort of populist folk hero.

  2. T.J. Kats

    I was curious about some of the stuff I couldn’t remember so looked up a few of these the other day.

    According to fact check review OJ did threaten to kill himself in Kim’s room. So while the way the line was delivered was goofy the general scenario may be accurate.

    http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/recaps/the-people-v-o-j-simpson-episode-1-our-fact-checking-recap-20160202

    Also Marcia Clark confirmed that she originally didn’t recognize OJ by name although this makes it sound like she figured it out quicker in life than on the show.

    http://www.vulture.com/2016/02/marcia-clark-people-v-oj-simpson-what-it-got-right-and-wrong.html

  3. Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski also wrote ‘Ed Wood’, which is the best movie Tim Burton ever made and the best Johnny Depp performance. So that at least gives them some credit.

    • Josh Zyber
      Author

      You know, I like Ed Wood overall, but the screenplay is certainly its weakest aspect. Burton’s direction and the performances by Depp and Martin Landau are what hold that movie together. I’ve felt that way about it since I saw it in the theater, long before the screenwriters had any track record of note.

        • Josh Zyber
          Author

          We were in college at the time. Although the movie did bomb overall, it was well reviewed and Burton had a big following among college students. I recall the screening being reasonably well attended, but we saw it at a small art house theater on campus.

          • William Henley

            Yeah, we had a theater on campus as well, but it was pretty much used to play artsy films, and as it was a Christian University, those were far and few between. It was used mainly for the art department. The screen was like 100 inches, and was the days before HDTV took off, so it was mostly 4×3 stuff shot on video tape. The auditorium was about the size of a classroom so might have fit 50 students (it was a small univeristy – the largest lecture halls we had fit 80 students)

          • EM

            Huh. My alma mater (which I live only a short walk away from) has a few cinema venues—some dedicated, some multipurpose, with quality varying from classroom-afterthought to pride-and-joy. I know the newest one, opened 2011, deservedly gets some admiration from far and wide; but it sounds like even the pre-2011 landscape was unusual for a college campus, and that never occurred to me.

  4. csm101

    I didn’t pay too much attention to the real case back when it happened. It all started with the white Bronco chase for me. At the time it happened, I was under the impression OJ had just murdered his wife and went directly on the run in the Bronco. I did watch a little bit of the trial here and there ( it was almost unavoidable) but was never really interested in the whole affair. When the ads for this show started to circulate, maybe while Fargo 2 was on, I thought it was going to be some kind of spoof. Seeing Travolta with those caterpillar eyebrows was laughable. As I started to see more ads and saw it wasn’t going to be a lampoon, I sort of grew a little interested in a trainwrecky kind of way. I guess after 20 years of having it in my subconscious, I kind of want to know what happened, being totally aware this is a TV production and there’s sure to be plenty of embellishments. I thought the first episode was intriguing and enjoyed it, although those scenes where they mention little Kimmy or Kourtney come across as name dropping. I really wish they cast someone else as OJ because Cuba Gooding Jr is horrible for the role. His high pitch voice during his tantrums are cringe inducing. I like Cuba, but not for this role. Even the crappy OJ TV movie from 20 years ago had a more fitting actor to play OJ. I think Blair Underwood would’ve of made a good choice, or even a fresh new face. Then there’s Travolta…what can I say?? I’m pretty excited to catch the next episode tomorrow. There not much else on tv for me right now.

  5. EM

    A TV series could run for years presenting one “Trial of the [20th] Century” per season. I should think the Sacco–Vanzetti, Leopold–Loeb, Scopes Monkey, and collective Nuremberg trials—among others—would be far more fascinating.

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