“The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” review: the first great show of 2016

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Having been an adult during the 1990s, my mother knows quite a bit about the O.J. Simpson murder trial. It was interesting to watch “American Crime Story” with her, as events happened and people would be named, she would say, “I know that person,” or “I remember this.” It is very fascinating to learn about these true-life events, and then to see them play out in front of you, and to know that after 20 years the trial is still fresh in everyone’s minds.

The premiere episode of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” is already setting up the show to be a masterclass of acting and true-crime drama. Even as a young person, the events and themes are ones that are relevant to everyone’s lives. Things like racism, sexism and the pros and cons of fame are all things that people young and old still deal with. O.J. Simpson’s trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman affected all involved, and it affected the people who watched it.

In the opening, rather than showing the discovery of the bodies of Nicole and Goldman outright, we are instead shown the unlawful beating of Rodney King, and the riots that came after it. This way, we are shown the racial tension in Los Angeles that will erupt once O.J. Simpson’s trial starts. It is Simpson, played by Cuba Gooding, Jr., who we see first after the riot footage walking out to meet his limo driver in order to catch a plane to Chicago. We immediately find Simpson suspicious, as he wears an ambiguous frown as he walks toward the limo, but as soon as he turns the corner, he puts on a smile. The next scene is the discovery of the bodies by a man walking his dog. The first minutes move fast, not wasting any time to show the aftermath of the murder, and the discovery of evidence against Simpson.

Soon the lawyers come into play. We are introduced to Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), the chain-smoking, no-nonsense attorney who is the lead prosecutor against Simpson. Clark is not afraid to point out the glaring holes in Simpson’s interrogation and she notes the multiple times Nicole called the police for domestic violence. The line, “the system failed her,” strikes a cord, and Paulson is great at playing Clark’s anger and frustration at the way the case is being carried out. Simpson’s defense includes Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) who is Simpson’s good friend and a former lawyer who feels an obligation to help his pal, not believing that he could have committed the crime even when the evidence begins piling. Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is a lawyer to the stars, charismatic and savvy to the point where he’s straight up asking Simpson if he did it. Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) has yet to become a part of the defense team, but he is introduced as a confident and very competitive man, as he outright says, “I like to win, and this case is a loser.”

All the performances are great across the board, even in the first episode. Paulson is possibly doing the best work of her career as Clark. Schwimmer is surprisingly very good as a man who just wants to stick by his friend. Travolta is a little out there, but just the right amount to add a bit of levity. Vance is great and sometimes humorous as Cochran. Other notable players include Sterling K. Brown as kind-hearted attorney Christopher Darden and Billy Magnussen as Simpson’s drug addled houseguest Kato Kaelin.

However the one performance that will obviously be talked about the most is Gooding as Simpson. The show does a brilliant job of not showing bias as to whether Simpson is guilty or innocent, and Gooding goes along with that, giving a phenomenally layered performance. The main layer of Gooding’s Simpson is that he is extremely stressed, ready to crack at any moment. He is shown taking medication and sometimes throwing tantrums. Sometimes he seems extremely and obviously guilty. Sometimes his Simpson can be oddly sympathetic, playing him as a decent father and a man mourning his former wife. His best moment in the first episode is at Nicole’s funeral. He arrives wearing dark sunglasses, but as he approaches Nicole’s casket, he removes them, showing an intense amount of pain, and whether that pain is from grief or guilt is up to the viewer.

The best thing the series does is remind us that the real victims of this whole thing are Nicole, Ron Goldman, and their families. The most heart-wrenching moment in the premiere is when police are searching Nicole’s home for clues after discovering her body. As they are looking, the phone in her home rings and goes to voicemail. It’s Sydney Simpson, her young daughter with O.J. The girl calls from the police station, begging in a choked, squeaky voice for her mother to pick up. It hurts to realize that Sydney and her brother Justin Simpson lost their mom in a very violent way at a young age, and never really got justice for it. Goldman was perhaps at the wrong place at the wrong time, and his whole family must suffer for it.

The first episode introduces images that have become iconic to Simpson’s trial, such as the black glove found at the crime scene to his white Bronco, which he drives off in at the end of the episode, bringing about the chase that everyone watched on their TVs. Even if you know the outcome of the trial (Spoiler: Simpson was found not guilty), it is still immensely interesting to watch the events play out in a way that is so well done.

However, some references feel a bit forced. The main one is the Kardashian family. Robert Kardashian is a totally necessary part of the story, so I get that his family has to be involved as well. Kris Jenner (played quite nicely by Selma Blair) is a good character to show, as she was a good friend of Nicole and her brief introductory scene at the funeral shows that she feels some amount of guilt for not seeing the signs of her friend’s abuse. With that said, the inclusion of the younger Kourtney, Khloe and Kim feels a bit clunky, especially during the same funeral scene when they are awkwardly named dropped. Although I’m willing to admit that this nitpick stems from my own general dislike of the Kardashian sisters.

On the technical side, the cinematography and direction are great. The first episode was directed by Ryan Murphy, who created the series and also serves as a producer. While Murphy is not the best when it comes to writing, he does not have credit for writing any episodes, and his talent as a director cannot be denied. With cool, memorable shots, such as a statue of Simpson as the police search outside his home, or a paparazzo running through bushes to get a good angle, the episode has style to match its substance.

While I’ve only seen one episode, I feel confident in saying that “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” will turn into one of the best shows on television this year. Even if you don’t watch it, at least ask your parents about where they were when the Bronco was being chased or when Simpson’s verdict was read. Even if you know the story and its outcome, it is an entirely different experience to see it like this.


Episode Rating: 9 out of 10

Episode premiered on FX on Feb. 2

Next episode premieres on Feb. 9 at 9 p.m.