TV Review: The People v O.J. Simpson – American Crime Story (USA, 2016)

When you think about the obstacles and expectations that The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story has to overcome, it sounds almost as unbelievable as the verdict of the infamous case itself.

As a follow-up and spin-off to Ryan Murphy‘s American Horror Story, The People vs O. J. Simpson has to prove that can Murphy’s talents for serialized storytelling can work outside the pulpy weirdness of the horror or musical genres – an outcome that seems all the more dubious in light of the mixed-response towards Murphy’s recent efforts, particularly Scream Queens.

Perhaps even more importantly, The People v O.J. Simpson has to avoid feeling tacky, exploitative or insensitive towards its subject material. A tall order indeed for the true-crime story that pretty much set the standard for courtroom tabloidization.

Thankfully, the first season of American Crime Story doesn’t just overcome these challenges but meets them head-on and utterly demolishes them. It’s an astoundingly cohesive and powerful ten episode first season that’s sure to cement the series on many ‘best of’ lists by year’s end.

The key to the series is in how they approach O.J. himself. Played by Cuba Gooding Jr, he’s a central figure in the opening and closing episodes of the series. However, during the heated court proceedings, he falls away into the backdrop and the show is all the better for it.

By limiting the audience’s exposure to Simpson, the show is able to emphasize and play-up both his ambiguity. Though the show encourages you to scrutinize every second O.J. is on-screen, his guilt often plays second-fiddle to the bigger picture issues like racial inequality, celebrity culture and the American criminal justice system.

A big part of this approach comes down to the writing (handled by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) which delivers on the potential of the material both effectively and, for the most part, respectfully. The pair do a great job of pulling you through each stage of the trial and exploring the dynamics both between and within each of the legal teams, and how those dynamics change and escalate over the course of O.J’s case.

As its lengthy title suggests, it’s not O.J. Simpson who’s the focus of this show – but the case against him. In some ways, the show – or at least this season of it – is much more a legal drama than it is a crime one with prosecutors Marcia (Sarah Paulson) Clark and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) facing off against Simpson’s ‘dream team’, led by Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Johnny Cochran (Courtney B. Vance).

Once the setup for the series is out of the way, it gets down to business and sinks its teeth into each of these individuals. It takes the time to comprehensively examine the angle from which they approach the case and lets the performances be shaped by that context. Paulson’s Clark is an natural favorite here, though Kenneth Choi delivers a strong turn as Judge Lance Ito.

The expectations thrust upon this first season of American Crime Story were huge but pretty much every element of the series comes together flawlessly.  If anything, the biggest issue concern I have after watching The People v O.J. Simpson is that I find it hard to imagine a second season capable of hitting the mark as  strongly as this debut. It’s all-round terrific.

Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)