[There was a video here]
The opening scene of FX’s new series The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story achieved true horror that no Ryan Murphy production previously has, not even the one named American Horror Story. Dread descended in the dreamlike moments leading up to the discovery of Nicole Brown Simpson’s mutilated body outside her home. That the series was able to achieve actual tension was truly masterful, given that just about everyone tuning in knew exactly where this was going.
Like a lot of TV (too much of it, in my estimation), The People vs. O.J. Simpson arrives on air with almost unanimous critical acclaim. At least some of the goodwill toward the show must come as a result of its impeccable timing—it arrives during a true-crime boom in our culture and at a specific programming moment where, due to winter hiatuses, virtually nothing else is on television. The last twenty-one years have been kind to the O.J. circus, which has gone from proto-reality TV tabloid trash everyone was sick of by its end to prestige television.
The show’s creators have an explicit statement of purpose. “We had the opportunity to be part of a conversation that needed to be had,” producer Nina Jacobson told the New York Times, regarding the decades-long resonance of O.J. and the racial implications of his case. “While we were shooting, the drumbeat of that conversation just kept getting louder and louder and louder. We did feel a sense of purpose, to speak to a giant audience with a director who has an enormous following and access, and actors who have fans in every corner.”
“These are topics that we’ve never gotten right, and never fully understood,” said executive producer and director of the first two episodes Ryan Murphy in another Times article. “It is such an important conversation in our culture now. And such an important thing to get right.”
The basic idea is that beyond repurposing good TV to make more good TV, beyond being simple human theater, there’s a social awareness present that makes The People vs. O.J. Simpson more suited to modern enlightenment. If you believe its creators’ earnest explanations, this show will focus on larger issues of race and sexism and celebrity—things we were supposedly too dumb to truly consider the implications of 21 years ago.
In the first episode, celebrity was certainly a concern, but on a meta-level. The People vs. O.J. Simpson is star-studded enough to be distracting, and the acting is histrionic enough to make the entire endeavor teeter on the brink of absurdity. Cuba Gooding Jr., seems to be just winging it here—despite taking the role of one of the most famous figures in the history of American culture, he did nothing to alter his voice or affect and thus is unconvincing. I don’t see O.J. when I look at Cuba Gooding Jr.; I see Cuba Gooding Jr. playing O.J.. Sarah Paulson plays frazzled like she’s playing a strand of Marcia Clark’s hair, not Marcia Clark, while John Travolta (as Robert Shaprio) is acting his facelift off.
On the bright side, Courtney B. Vance, while given very little to do during the premiere, certainly looks the part of Johnnie Cochran, and casting the perpetually underrated Selma Blair as Kris Jenner (then-Kardashian) was a stroke of total genius.
[There was a video here]
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s script is punchy and frenetically paced without being obnoxiously Sorkin-esque, and Murphy has toned down his direction a notch or two from AHS’s campy heights, so it all looks big, bold, and impressively choreographed without quite getting in the way of itself. The effort here seems to be to balance the style with substance, and the result was, at the very least, a fun hour and twenty minutes of television despite the grim subject matter and pretensions of the show’s creators.
Perhaps those proclamations of seriousness were just talk, anyway. Maybe it’s not that we need Murphy, et. al., to tease out the political subtext of the O.J. Simpson, which was clearly visible 21 years ago. Maybe it’s that our modern supposed enlightenment means we need more explicit justifications for indulging in lurid spectacle.
[Footage/images via FX]