DVD Review– American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson takes a ready-made plot from real life and dramatizes it effectively, even if all of the themes of the case aren’t entirely given the justice they deserve. The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman and the ensuing trial became more than just a true-crime case. It was a popular culture phenomenon—a national shared experience that taught all kinds of lessons, depending on what one focused upon. From this reviewer’s personal experience, the case was one of the defining historical/cultural moments that shaped the worldviews and attitudes of the generation that came of age around the turn of the century. (Notably, the other event of similar magnitude, the Clinton impeachment case, will be turned into a future series of American Crime Story, after the Versace murder and Hurricane Katrina.)
Throughout the O.J. Simpson case, the refrain “you can’t make this stuff up!” was remarkably prescient. Showrunner Ryan Murphy’s other series, American Horror Story, has been criticized for not knowing what to do with certain characters, going off on ineffective plot tangents and having unsteady pacing. None of those problems afflicts The People v. O.J. Simpson. Perhaps being based on actual events serves as a more effective framework than a wholly original narrative, but the plot stays consistently involving, the pacing is almost beyond reproach, and nearly everybody in the cast has plenty to do.
The ensemble cast is mostly terrific. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance is a bit of an enigma– apparently, Gooding alternated playing O.J. Simpson as guilty in one take and innocent in another, never knowing which version would be used in the final product. As a result, O.J. becomes so nebulous a figure that he emerges as merely the catalyst for the action. Had a firmer approach been taken, Gooding could have galvanized as a wrongly accused man or a guilty killer trying to get away with murder. Far more magnetic are Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, both of whom dazzle as opposing attorneys. Nathan Lane brings a bit of amiable levity as F. Lee Bailey, and John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro grows more nuanced and effective with each episode. The bit parts are sometimes enough to justify a “Best Cameo Appearance” Emmy, including Connie Britton’s turn as Faye Resnick, and Joseph Siravo, who confronts the justified criticism that the series largely ignored Ron Goldman with an intense three-minute scene as Fred Goldman. Siravo totally deserved some sort of award for his powerhouse performance, which serves as a grounding moral force for the production. David Schwimmer unexpectedly but skillfully manages to make Robert Kardashian the conscience of the defense team. Arguably best of all is Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden, who manages to blend righteous indignation with gentle humanity to create a wholly engaging performance.
And yet… for everything that is done competently, skillfully, and even brilliantly, there are numerous instances where the miniseries doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have. At times, the show seems to be wrestling with maintaining the proper tone. Here and there, the production seems perilously close to tossing aside all restraint and playing the proceedings as unabashed farce. Indeed, a bit more attention could have been paid to the fodder the case provided for late-night comedians and Saturday Night Live. The only nod to the jokes and running gags is a quick glimpse at Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos.” There’s a fleeting reference to Seinfeld, which famously parodied the case’s major moments, but only to show different racial preferences to sitcoms. At times, the “you know what those kids are going to grow up to be” Kardashian jokes get to be a bit in-your-face, and after a couple of quips, one half expects the actors to turn and wink at the camera.
The People v. O.J. Simpson is certainly high-quality entertainment, but there is always a problem with TV shows, books, movies, and so forth that use the adjective American in their titles—they tend to present themselves as having an importance, resonance, and insight that they often fall short of having. The People v. O.J. Simpson tries to present itself as a panoramic commentary on American society, bigotry, and the justice system, yet its sharpest barbs only hit the culture of celebrity. The big problem with the series trying to address racism in America is that it merely brings up some incidents and issues and expects to earn points for them. A more ambitious production would have tried to really dig into societal ills and tried to provide solutions, and a more shallow production would have focused on being pure entertainment without striving for pretensions of importance. Ultimately, The People v. O.J. Simpson does a great job of adapting the case into a legal thriller, even if its attempt to examine the flaws in society falls flatter than it should. Thanks to terrific acting, the show is compellingly watchable, even for those viewers who still remember every detail that is dramatized here.
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
20th Century Fox