On ‘The People v. O.J. Simpson,’ it’s Cochran vs. Shapiro for Dream Team leader

Senior Television Writer
02.23.16 28 Comments

A few thoughts on tonight's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story coming up just as soon as I do this pro bono to reintroduce myself to the public…

The O.J. trial was simultaneously farce and tragedy, and it's to this series' credit that it manages to capture both of those tones without feeling like whiplash. An episode like “100 Percent Not Guilty” largely dwells on the circus of it all, with Bob Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran jockeying for control of the defense team, Faye Resnick putting out a book, the celebrity-obsessed Lance Ito being named judge for the trial, and more. And a lot of that stuff is fun, particularly in the rest of the Dream Team struggling to hide their bewilderment and/or contempt for Shapiro as he reveals just how unprepared he is for any of this.

Yet the episode's able to turn on a dime for two impressive bits of monologuing: one a glorious and fanciful piece of oratory, the other a hard slap of reality over what the case is actually about.

After lingering in the background for the first few episodes, Courtney B. Vance grabs control of the miniseries with both hands in the scene where Johnnie visits O.J. in jail and pumps up his client with a mesmerizing account of how the Juice's gridiron glory once inspired him. Vance is most famous for his movie and TV work, but the guy is a classically-trained stage actor with a Tony on his shelf. He gives good speech, and in that moment he became the star of that part of the series in the same way that Johnnie would become the new head of the defense by episode's end.

As Fred Goldman, Joseph Siravo is among the show's lower-profile castmembers (I mainly know him as Johnny Boy Soprano), but that scene where Goldman vents to Marcia Clark about how his son is being lost in all this insanity hit hard. Ronald Goldman was an afterthought in the real trial, given the celebrity of the defendant and his relationship with the other victim, but his murder was just as brutal, just as permanent, and just as worthy of seriousness rather than the carnival atmosphere that sprung up around the whole case.

The People V. O.J. isn't rewriting history for its own garish agenda when it details all the ridiculousness. This stuff happened, and was treated by much of the media and the public at large as parody even as it was happening. The TV show is capturing all of that, and more, including the slow-motion train wreck that is the prosecution's case, this week particularly after Marcia – despite ample warning from the focus group – accepts a predominantly African-American jury. The racial politics in turn catapult Christopher Darden from obscurity to a seat at the prosecution table, prompting the episode's bitterly funny punchline, where a confused O.J. asks, “When did they get a black guy?”

What did everybody else think?

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