“American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson”

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Along with the multitude of other shows Ryan Murphy is producing at the moment, “American Crime Story” is an anthology series that acts as a companion piece to Murphy’s other popular FX show “American Horror Story.” For its first season, “American Crime Story” takes the audience back to the 1990s, more specifically the 1994 trial of football star and actor O.J. Simpson. Arguably one of the most notorious trials in recent history, the O.J. Simpson case and its non-guilty verdict still resonates with people to this day. This is an event that divided an entire nation, that the media made a huge spectacle of and that many already know the outcome of. But with daring camerawork, intelligent writing and spectacular acting from a talented cast, “American Crime Story” is already setting standards for gritty television drama.

The show’s opener “From the Ashes of Tragedy” thrusts the audience into the story of O.J.’s trial, moving swiftly from one sequence to the next. It opens on a rather dour but relevant note: archival footage of the Rodney King beating and the subsequent 1992 L.A. riots. Since the Rodney King trial cultivated ripple effects that impacted O.J. Simpson’s case, the parallelism between the two is significant not just as a commentary about race, class and culture clash, but about America itself. While it is only the first episode, “From the Ashes of Tragedy” covers a lot of fascinating material, from the cops finding Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman’s dead bodies in front of Brown’s condo to O.J.’s suicidal behavior.

Cuba Gooding Jr. delivers an emotionally stirring performance as the season’s titular character, probably his best since his Oscar-winning role in the 1996 sports drama “Jerry Maguire.” Though he looks and sounds nothing like his real-life counterpart, Gooding Jr. emulates O.J.’s charisma, aggressiveness, pill-popping habits and despair during the most devastating moment of his life. David Schwimmer (“Friends”) does his best in conveying Robert Kardashian, one of O.J.’s closest friends, despite somewhat whitewashing the role (Robert Kardashian was half-Armenian). University alum Selma Blair (“Legally Blonde”) also makes a powerful impression as Kardashian’s ex-wife and current reality show gem Kris Jenner, evoking both Jenner’s physical features and personality. Though John Travolta (“Wild Hogs”) matches the mannerisms of O.J.’s confidant and defense lawyer Robert Shapiro, he falters slightly by giving an exaggerated caricature of Shapiro’s character rather than a three-dimensional portrayal.

On the other side of the O.J. case is Marcia Clark, played devilishly by “American Horror Story” favorite Sarah Paulson. In addition to Paulson, the show’s best performance comes from Courtney B. Vance (“Joyful Noise”) as Johnnie Cochran, a TV personality and integral lawyer in O.J.’s defense and criminal acquittal. In the brief moments he appears in the episode, Vance steals every scene he’s in with his gripping presence and says some of the episode’s best lines. During one tense scene between Cochran and his co-worker and ultimate rival Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown, “Supernatural”), Vance chillingly utters, “The world needs more black men willing to make a difference.” Amen to that.

The behind-the-scenes craft of “American Crime Story” is almost as good, if not better than the the show’s actual depiction of events on-screen. Screenwriting duo Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Goosebumps”) write some powerful dialogue, while executive producer Ryan Murphy directs the episode with exceptional skill. The cinematography is well-executed and immersive, with the camera capturing some fantastic close-ups and wide shots. Interestingly enough, two specific shots give some insight into O.J.’s moral ambiguity: both show the backside of O.J., the first being when O.J. discovers the death of his ex-wife over the phone and the second being when O.J. stands over her body at her funeral. We understand O.J.’s pain and suffering, but showing only his back clearly shows some of his character’s restraint and uncertainty. It’s as agonizing and frustrating as one would expect when thinking about the ethical dilemmas imbued in the O.J. trial. The episode’s very last scene — O.J. escaping from the cops in a white Ford Bronco that would lead to an infamous chase on the freeway — makes it all the more haunting, especially with Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released” scoring the final seconds.

It’s unfortunate that the deeply rooted issues within the O.J. Simpson trial still exist today. The show poses tough questions about the case (the most important being, did O.J. really do it?) — and doesn’t give many answers. But luckily, what “American Crime Story” has done, and will most likely continue to do, is highlight the case as a way of engaging viewers in having an honest conversation about what’s going on in our society, whether it’s about issues of race, class, fame or America as a whole.

Grade: A-

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