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.