“Fame is fleeting,” Robert Kardashian tells his kids in an early episode of FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (it debuts tomorrow night at 10). “It's hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
Young Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, and Rob look at their father like he's speaking some long-dead language they have no hope of understanding. Their dad is on TV, and getting priority seating at overbooked restaurants, all because he's famous – and only famous, at that, because his best friend happens to be Simpson, the world's most famous accused murderer. Of course fame means everything to these kids.
The People v. O.J. – the first installment of a new FX anthology series from Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee), and not to be confused with ABC's similarly-titled anthology series American Crime – isn't really a Keeping Up with the Kardashians origin story. The kids only appear briefly (Murphy estimates only 4 or 5 out of 400 scenes in the 10 episodes involve them), and their father (played by David Schwimmer) was a key figure in Simpson's arrest and trial for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ronald Goldman. (Here's the real Robert Kardashian reading what seemed to be the Juice's suicide note on the day of the infamous Ford Bronco chase.) But their presence, or occasional references to them – say, when Robert pleads with O.J., “Do not kill yourself in Kimmie's bedroom!” – don't feel gratuitously inserted as a way to give this 22-year-old case some millennial appeal.
Rather, what The People v. O.J. – written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt), adapting Jeffrey Toobin's book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson – is arguing is that the seeds of our current celebrity culture, where a Kim Kardashian can become internationally famous for no apparent reason, were being sown with a murder trial unlike anything any of us had seen before. In its intersection of race, class, gender politics, and celebrity, Simpson's trial was both a three-ring circus and a harbinger of so much of what was to come in our culture.
This is a lot to tackle, even in 10 hours of television, but based on the first 6, The People v. O.J. is incredibly watchable and clever as it pivots between its many big themes and the more basic issue of dramatizing The Trial of the (Previous) Century in a way that won't feel like a rehash to those who remember it well, and should hopefully be illuminating, and entertaining, for viewers too young to grimace at the mere mention of a Kato Kaelin or Lance Ito.
The season is something of an arranged marriage between Murphy and the writers, who were originally developing The People v. O.J. as a miniseries for FOX, but the combination works. Murphy directed the first episode, and helped assemble the cast – which includes Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J., John Travolta as attorney to the stars Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as slick defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran, Murphy's American Horror Story muse Sarah Paulson as doomed prosecutor Marcia Clark, Sterling K. Brown as her fellow ADA Christopher Darden, plus Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey), Rob Morrow (Barry Scheck), Evan Handler (Alan Dershowitz), Bruce Greenwood (Gil Garcetti), Kenneth Choi (Judge Ito), Steven Pasquale (Mark Fuhrman), Selma Blair (Kris Jenner), Malcolm Jamal-Warner (A.C. Cowlings), and more – but because he's not the lead writer, the series is able to largely avoid the tonal whiplash that's baked into Glee, Scream Queens, et al. The prosecution against Simpson contained multitudes, but nearly all of them feel of a piece in this version.
The story kicks off not with the murders in Brentwood, or the Bronco chase, but with another infamous moment for Los Angeles law-enforcement: footage of the LAPD's beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, which would eventually lead to riots and an ever-growing rift between the city's black population and its police officers. Cochran builds the defense strategy along that racial divide, even though, as Darden keeps arguing to deaf ears, Simpson had all but severed ties with the black community in favor of his wealthy white friends.
In fact, when Shapiro first broaches the idea of adding Cochran to the defense team, Simpson is offended, insisting, “I'm not black! I'm O.J.!”
Though the story has many players, over time Alexander and Karaszewski wisely narrow the focus to three of them(*). Clark is the story's tragic heroine, well-intentioned but not at all prepared for the way the defendant's fame and skin color would affect the outcome, nor for how many people would use words like “strident” and “bitch” to describe her. Darden is promoted from obscurity to sit beside Clark – and opposite former mentor Cochran – all the while enduring accusations of being a token and/or an Uncle Tom. And the story carefully explains how Cochran went from a dedicated LA prosecutor himself to a man devoting his career to accusing the system of racial bias.
(*) And, when possible, they also narrow the focus of the episodes themselves, so that the second is only about the Bronco chase, and the sixth is largely told from Clark's point of view.
The performances by Paulson, Brown, and Vance are all spectacular, taking three individuals who had long been rendered caricatures(**) and making them achingly, complicatedly human.
(**) Cochran was the inspiration for Seinfeld shyster Jackie Chiles, while Tina Fey and Jerry Minor played exaggerated versions of Clark and Darden in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt season 1. At TCA last month, a critic told Fey that Clark was depicted sympathetically in The People v. O.J.; Fey seemed to have trouble understanding how this could be possible.
Travolta, the biggest name in the cast, isn't nearly as successful at doing the same with Shapiro. It's a big, strange performance, that on one level conveys how woefully unprepared Shapiro was for the case – and how oblivious he was to this fact – but that still feels cartoonish compared to the work of so many of his co-stars. The broader performances feel more appropriate when dealing with some of the O.J. circus's many sideshows, whether Connie Britton as Nicole's coke-addicted friend Faye Resnick or Billy Magnussen as O.J.'s spacey houseguest Kato.
At one point, we see Kato out for a jog, being hit on by a carful of attractive women, then yelled at by a man who assumes he was O.J.'s accomplice and should go to Hell. Kato – who, like so many of the figures attached to the case, would have a long-lasting level of celebrity akin to what Robert Kardashian's kids would eventually enjoy – considers what's just happened, shrugs, and says, “Fame's complicated.”
Fame's far from the only subject of The People v. O.J., but it made everything more difficult for the prosecution at the time, and adds occasional dollops of black comedy to the story. When Judge Ito, newly assigned to the case and barely able to conceal his glee at the celebrity that will come with it, invites true crime author Dominick Dunne (Robert Morse) into his chambers, he proudly shows off the first trophy to come with it: an autographed photo of Arsenio Hall.
Somehow, as the trial grew stranger and stranger, Ito would become the subject of a running – or, rather, dancing – gag on Jay Leno's Tonight Show, as a double homicide became easy fodder for comedians.
With Murphy attached, I feared The People v. O.J. would continue treating the story as a joke. But the treatment is serious, thoughtful, and an introductory triumph for this American Crime Story franchise.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org