Yesterday, I posted my review of The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Now that the first episode's aired, it's time to talk about how the filmmakers are approaching this big story, coming up just as soon as I explain who O.J. is by talking about his Hertz commercials…
There are going to be two distinct audiences for The People v. O.J.: anyone old enough (say, over 35) to have strong memories of the trial and its many weird players, and younger people who might have heard of the case but have no idea how beloved O.J. was at the time, nor how stunning it felt to have someone so famous accused of such a brutal crime. I spent a while yesterday explaining to a younger critic friend not only the magnitude of the Juice's popularity, but the very different relationship we had with our celebrities before the trial. There was not only no TMZ (few Americans even had email accounts at this point), but not even an Us Weekly. (Us existed as a magazine back then, but as a second-rate People with soft features about the awesomeness of stars, rather than the tabloid it would become.) Any skepticism of celebrity was being done in either incredibly highbrow places that the average person didn't read, or in places so lowbrow that no one gave them any credence. A celebrity scandal had to be incredibly high-profile to slip into the mainstream consciousness – and, as noted throughout this first episode, the LAPD's neglectful response to O.J.'s abuse of Nicole prevented that from happening. When one of the prosecutors says, “I just can't picture O.J. Simpson doing it,” he's speaking for the public at large.
“From the Ashes of Tragedy” has a lot of ground to cover in taking us from the night of the murders – with a brief prologue featuring footage of the Rodney King beating and the L.A. riots, so we'll understand the very volatile state of things between the LAPD and the African-American population of LA – through to the moment when O.J. and A.C. Cowlings disappeared in the white Ford Bronco. It has to introduce a lot of characters, establish various motives – Robert Kardashian believes in his best friend's innocence, Marcia Clark wants belated justice for Nicole, Johnnie Cochran fundamentally mistrusts the LAPD, Robert Shapiro is excited to be at the center of such a big case – and drop in lots of information that will become important as the story shifts from the investigation(*) to the trial.
(*) Strangely, the filmmakers have insisted that the series doesn't take sides as to whether or not Simpson actually committed the murders. Yet the early scenes with Mark Fuhrman and the other LAPD detectives present things more or less as they would testify about them months later. If the goal is to leave narrative ambiguity about Simpson's guilt – as opposed to the filmmakers deciding, for whatever reason, that it would hurt the series' marketing if they came out and said they think O.J. did it – then this episode doesn't do a great job of establishing that ambiguity.
Even though many of the players (including key members of the Simpson defense team) have yet to be introduced, the episode moves pretty nimbly between all these people and all these facts – or, at least, it did for me as someone who spent a lot of time watching the news coverage of Simpson's arrest and trial back in the day. I'm very curious to hear, though, what those of you who are relatively new to this story thought of this very dense introductory episode, as well as whether older viewers felt it faithful (give or take whatever it is John Travolta is doing in his performance as Shapiro) to their memories of the case.
Looking forward to see the feedback for the premiere, and likely talking about the series a lot over the course of these next few months.
What did everybody else think?