A review of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story finale coming up just as soon as I've discussed this case less than everybody in America…
Back in January, when we'd both watched only the first few People v. O.J. screeners, I got into a conversation about it with another TV writer. We were both enjoying it, but at the same time, she had the same question I did:
Is this a genuinely great show, or just an entertaining version of an irresistible story?
There were, after all, some of the weird tonal shifts evident in a lot of Ryan Murphy's work (though usually in stuff he's written, which he wasn't doing here). Cuba Gooding Jr. was miscast (too small, voice not commanding enough), John Travolta seemed to be getting different direction from everyone else in the production, the swipes at the Kardashian kids felt a little cheap (even if they were thematically germane), and I wasn't sure if the creative team would be able to wrangle all these characters and side plots.
By the time I had watched a few more hours, though, it was clear People v. O.J. wasn't just getting by on the case itself being so compelling, but on the choices that Murphy, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, and everyone else had made in adapting it into this form. The decisions made to zero in on just one character (like in “Marcia Marcia Marcia”), or set of characters (“A Jury in Jail”), or to spend a whole hour setting up Chris Darden's fatal error with the gloves, were incredibly smart. And as the story moved on, many of the things that seemed sketchy early on proved to be seamless and important pieces of the larger tapestry. The weirdness of Travolta's performance only underlined the way that Shapiro quickly became an irrelevant outsider on the legal team he had assembled. The Kardashian scenes were setting us up for the pivot where Bob Kardashian turns out to be one of the more tragic figures in this story: the loyal friend who realized not only that the entire friendship had been a lie, but that he had aided that friend in getting away with murder.
When I checked back in with my friend this morning, we agreed this was dynamite storytelling, and not just a dynamite story being passably told.
“The Verdict” proves a perfect conclusion to things, not only because it wraps up the trial itself, but because it illustrates not only the potency of the source material, but the ways the creative team chose to present it, and the liberties they occasionally took.
The dramatizations of the verdict itself, and of the press conference put on by the DA's office and the Goldmans, were more or less verbatim from what really happened. Here's raw footage of the verdict; take a look at the dawning horror on Kardashian's face. And here's an excerpt from the real press conference, including Darden falling into the arms of the Goldmans when he finds himself unable to keep talking about this stunning, shameful defeat. In both cases, the real imagery was so potent that the show wisely chose not to embellish further. But they also hit as hard as they do (the Darden/Goldman moment just about knocked me out of my chair, and I remembered seeing the real thing 20 years ago) because the series has put so much effort into humanizing both Bob and Chris so that we can empathize with them, even though both made terrible decisions along the way that helped bring us to this moment.
Marcia and Chris's farewell conversation, meanwhile, could have felt like a biographical detail about their doomed heroine that Karaszewski and Alexander wanted to slip in while there was still time. But it also felt necessary(*) not only as a reminder of why Marcia felt so passionately about the case – and how much it hurt for the end result to be the same one that happened with her rapist back when she was 17 – but of how close these two had become by the time the verdict came in. That's a painful memory, and one she clearly doesn't reveal to just anyone. But even if the two of them never became more than good work friends – the show's treatment of it as a romance that was never meant to be was fictionalizing things to a degree, but one that treated both figures with respect and making them even more sympathetic in the process – her opening up to him was important as the final barrier falling before the two went their separate ways.
(*) Your mileage may vary. Jason Lynch from Adweek, who otherwise loved the finale, told me he felt everything after the scene of the Goldmans in the car was a bit like the multiple epilogues in The Return of the King: a show not wanting to end before it had given all of its characters one or two bonus farewells.
The Chris/Johnnie relationship proved as important to the series as Chris and Marcia, and I loved how the finale let both of them be right, and both of them be wrong. We know from all the terrible recent news about tensions (and worse) between various police departments around the country and their black constituents that the O.J. verdict didn't magically end racial profiling, or do much to better the legal situation of black defendants without the money and fame of an Uncle Juice. But we also know that, starting with President Clinton's comments that day, we began talking about it much more openly than we ever have before. It stopped being a thing to be swept under the rug, or ignored altogether. The dialogue continues because problems continue, but at least most of us have stopped pretending the problems don't exist.
And though the series acknowledged all the circus-like elements of the trial, and had great fun depicting much of it, it managed to never lose sight of the biggest tragedy of the whole thing: the violent deaths of Nicole and Ronald. Though the Goldmans never became major characters, the miniseries seemed to be shaking with rage every time we saw Fred doing the same, and the montage of what happened to all the real players of the trial ended not with any of the lawyers, or any Kardashians, or even O.J. himself, but the two victims who never got any kind of after for themselves.
Yes, this was a great real-life story, but one with all kinds of minefields, and The People v. O.J. managed to avoid all of them, while also getting dazzling performances from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, David Schwimmer, and so many others. This was a hell of a season of TV. Whatever Murphy plans to do with Hurricane Katrina for season 2 has a very tough act to follow.
Some other thoughts:
* In my review of the jury episode, I noted that I didn't recognize most of the actors playing jurors. Well, I sure should have recognized one, because she was one of the most amusing bits of casting of this whole project: Susan Beaubian, who played jury foreperson Armanda Cooley, played the wife of O.J. Simpson's character in The Naked Gun. (You can watch her first scene – which includes Simpson getting beat up by a hospital bed – right here.)
* I'm curious for everyone's stories on where they were, who they were with, and what the mood was as the verdict was being read. I was in a communications class, and as the trial reached its late stages, the professor had made it a habit of wheeling in a TV for us to watch some of the coverage, because it related to a lot of the other coursework. She did it again for the verdict, and we (a predominantly white group of kids) were loud and dismayed when he was found not guilty. Afterwards, it seemed to be the only thing anyone on campus was talking about for a very long time. The news footage Murphy incorporated into the finale neatly captured so much of what we all saw, heard, and said that day.
* Last week, we got some clarity on where the show's actors will be competing at Emmy time. While the majority of the cast will be up for supporting actor or actress, three will be in the lead categories: Paulson and Vance, both of whom make enormous sense as leads, and Gooding Jr., who doesn't quite so much. Yes, O.J.'s name is in the title, and I've heard that technically, Gooding is on screen more than any of his co-stars, but a lot of the time, he's just sitting silently while Vance or Travolta or Nathan Lane is doing all the talking. It's really not until the finale where there are multiple scenes where O.J. is the dramatic focal point, as opposed to someone for another character to react to. The party scene where Simpson starts to realize that he'll be a free man but also a pariah (he not only chases away Bob Kardashian, but even makes the bible too tainted for Bob to keep), was a good conclusion for his character arc, though. It's not nearly the punishment he deserved, but it was at least something, and likely pushed him into the space where he wound up committing the crime that actually put him behind bars.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org