The first episode of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” starts not with the murder of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but with the rioting that took place after the acquittal of the officers who brutally beat Rodney King. A newscaster in the show states, “It’s going to take years to recover from this.” Thus, the show makes its thesis clear. “The People” isn’t going to be about the case necessarily, whether O.J. “The Juice” Simpson is guilty or not, but the racial and gender politics that went into the O.J. Simpson murder trial and how that is reflected in society today.
After this quick montage of the King fallout and ensuing riots in Los Angeles, the show starts with the finding of a grisly murder scene of two people in Brentwood, California, with more than enough evidence (the glove being the last straw) pointing to O.J. as the guilty party. But for some reason, the cops don’t act right away.
For almost anyone that would be a suspect in this case, the person would be arrested on the spot. Yet, because of O.J.’s popularity in the NFL as a leading rusher and perennial MVP candidate along with some starring Hollywood roles, the suspected criminal gets the celebrity treatment. And so begins the riveting, procedural-like docu-fiction style take on this pop culture phenomenon, courtesy of director Ryan Murphy and creator-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski.
The first episode doesn’t reveal too much about the case, but it starts to lay the groundwork of the characters we will be following in this 10-episode series. And there are plenty of them.
First off, Simpson is played with both nuance and grandstanding by the Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr. In this first episode, Gooding has the tough task of playing a man coping with the media frenzy that is taking over his life and the responsibility he has for his children now that their mother is dead. Furthermore, Gooding excels at expressing the conflicts within Simpson, showing the guilt of his murder or, at least, the accusations of his guilt, all the while seen as having dependency issue. The creators emphasize Simpson’s constant worrying about his public image and how the media is spinning the news stories being leaked about the investigation.
Then there are his lawyers. Robert Kardashian — played by David Schwimmer — seems to be doing the best he can, giving the dopey performance he was known to give as Ross on mega-hit sitcom “Friends.” More so than Schwimmer’s performance, the biggest letdown of the first episode is the brief inclusion of the Kardashian and Jenner family. There didn’t seem to be a need for it. Then again, the show appears to deconstruct the public and media obsession with celebrities, which is never better exemplified in 2016 than the Kardashian family.
John Travolta gives a showier performance as the ethically questionable criminal lawyer, Robert Shapiro. Travolta is bound to be the biggest love-it-or-hate-it performance on the show, because of his exaggerated makeup (he looks like a wax doll), physical mannerisms and vocal tics. Regardless of what people think of Travolta’s portrayal, this is the most dedicated he has been to a role in quite some time.
On the other side, we have the lawyers who plan on prosecuting Simpson — and, seemingly, the moral center of the story — Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and William Hodgman (Christian Clemenson). Quite frankly, Paulson seems to be the true standout on the show. Paulson not only creates her own vocal cadence to further invest herself into the character, but in every scene she is in, we see her undying determination to do what’s right, her disgust in the way the LAPD is handling the case and the broken systems within the American justice system. She begins to become increasingly aware that this case isn’t going to be as easy as the evidence suggests. All the while, she has children to take care of and her stressful second divorce to finalize. One would have to assume that if Paulson continues to play all of her character’s complexities convincingly, she would be a shoo-in for the Best Actress Emmy later this year.
Because of this overwhelming amount of attentive details and characters to establish in this first episode, it’s justifiable that not all characters seem as complex as the one Paulson is crafting.
With the first episode ending on the infamous highway police chase after Simpson’s white Bronco, relevant racial injustice, plenty of memorable performances by a wonderful ensemble, heavily researched writing and its stylish direction, “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” is the first must-watch television show of 2016.
Contact Levi Hill at [email protected].