American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson

As a non-American with no idea who OJ Simpson was apart from that guy in the Airplane! movies, the 1995 trial of OJ Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman didn’t have the impact on me here in the UK that it did in the USA. I was aware of it and the fact that he was probably guilty but got off thanks to clever lawyers was about all I remembered. However, as a Ryan Murphy fan I was interested (although all these shows with ‘America’ and ‘Crime’ in their title definitely confuses my Plex Media server!)

One of the big draws was always going to be the cast, with even not-quite-with-it me aware of who Marcia Clarke and Johnnie Cochran were. The fact that this show was as brilliant as it was is largely down to the extremely well written scripts that managed to retell a well known story by focussing on different aspects(race, sex, class etc) and characters. The other big factor is the phenomenally good cast who really brought these characters to life. I have been a big Sarah Paulson fan since Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (yes, I was the one who loved it!) and she is clearly a favourite of Ryan Murphy’s. Paulson’s portrayal of Marcia Clark, the lead prosecutor really humanised a woman who was derided for her bad perm and written off as a bitch. The show’s depiction of the terrible sexism she was subject to is notable. Paulson shows her as sharp and not totally likable, but a committed and dedicated woman with a lot of depth.

Courtney B Vance was fantastic as the flamboyant and charismatic Johnnie Cochran, who you just felt yourself leaning forward and listening to (and being convinced by.) However, we also saw his vanity and hubris at times. He shamelessly played the race card to get his client off – and it worked!

I am no follower of the Kardashians, but surely everyone in the western world knows their name, but David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian was probably the heart and soul of the show. Schwimmer’s loyalty to his friend gradually turns into horror by the end when he realises this man who he has known for years is almost definitely a murderer but Kardashian cannot walk away from him. Schwimmer’s hangdog expression worked very well for the character, although I’m not sure we really needed the kiddie Kardashians getting a lecture from dad about fame not being important. Just a bit too on the nose, that.

Also fantastic, Sterling K Brown as Christopher Darden. I didn’t know anything about Darden but knew Brown from Army Wives and Person of Interest. His relationship with Marcia was probably all for the TV show but a nice part of this series.

Less convincing was Cuba Gooding Jr as OJ – who even I could see had none of the physicality of OJ. Gooding has a certain manic quality to him (‘show me the money’ will probably be on his gravestone!) It was a tricky role in that most people believe OJ was guilty but Gooding couldn’t sit there twirling his moustache! The focus really was not on him that much, and who knows if OJ really was that arrogant. It is hard to like him – but perhaps that is just because pretty much everyone agrees now that he really was guilty.

John Travolta as Robert Shapiro was probably the most divisive character. Again, I don’t know the real Shapiro but Travolta’s highly mannered performance looked like someone doing an impersonation of a big personality. His wigs, and especially his eyebrows, were extremely distracting and took me out of the reality of the show. He didn’t seem like a real person so on the whole that was the one part that didn’t come off.

Add in Nathan Lane, Bruce Greenwood and a hilarious turn from Connie Britton and the show was just full of amazing performances.

However, that would not have mattered without the writing, and there were just so many brilliant moments throughout the series. Of course, they had the real life trial which really was full of drama. The gloves, Marcia’s hair, Judge Ito, Cochran and of course the villain of the piece, Mark Fuhrman, the racist sleazeball cop who was probably responsible for OJ’s aquittal after he came across as totally unreliable and an all round terrible person. You could hardly make up the appallingness of his interview tapes where he spewed the most horrendous racist bigotry and just vile opinions. Then there was the real tragedy of Goldman’s family’s pain that their son’s murder was being treated as a media circus. The focus was on OJ so much, the victims were almost incidental at times in the trial and the show brought it back to them very effectively.

The 6th episode of the series ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ really highlighted the casually sexist behaviour of so many of the people involved, from Judge Ito, to Cochran to Marcia’s bosses. Paulson wonderfully portrayed a woman under pressure from so many sides.

Then there was the 8th episode focussing on the jury which was also fascinating – and probably the funniest episode!

In many ways, the most remarkable thing about this series is that you really cannot believe all the events that actually happened – yet they did. By all accounts, not that much was made up, certainly not of the facts of the case. The Darden/ Clark almost romance being totally unconfirmed was more speculation than fact but most of the interactions between the lawyers, the way Clark was spoken to, the way the jury was treated – all true. You really could not make this up!

What this series did so well was to re-tell a story with just enough distance – 20 years – to be recent but to be a totally different time. There was no internet and social media, the 24hour news hadn’t started. Reality tv didn’t exist. Yet the problems of racism, sexism and class, rich vs poor, which are still around today, were even worse 20 years ago.

Brilliantly written, fantastically acted, great pacing and direction. Huge congratulations to all involved in making an engrossing drama out of a case everyone knows the outcome of!

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