There was really only one way the finale of The People V. O.J. Simpson could go. After nine episodes building the foundation and examining the trial from almost every conceivable angle, the time had come for the jury to read the verdict we all knew was coming. And because we all already knew what was coming, the producers didn’t have the luxury of using a big reveal to provide drama. They had to create it the hard way, by showing the effect it had on everyone involved in smaller, more subtle ways. And they pulled it off about as well as anyone could have hoped.
1) It’s a little weird to know the ending of a piece of drama going in. It’s never been a barrier to success (see, Titanic), but it does raise the level of difficulty a bit for the people producing it, because they need to figure out a way to surprise and move the audience even when the audience knows exactly where they’re trying to go. It’s not just an issue for shows grounded in real events, either. We’ve also seen this in a few prominent prequels. We knew Lou Solverson couldn’t die in season two of Fargo, because we saw old Lou Solverson in season one. And we know exactly what happens to occasionally-well-meaning attorney Jimmy McGill in Better Call Saul, because his tragic future was laid out in Breaking Bad.
Similarly, we all knew going into the American Crime Story finale that the jury was going to read that not guilty verdict, even after the prosecution laid out the evidence step-by-step, and even after all those shots of the Goldmans’ hopeful, hurting faces. And I was still on the edge of my seat when the foreman started talking. If that’s not the sign of a solid drama, man, I don’t know what is.
2) All that said, be honest here: There was a teeny, tiny part of you that wanted the show to throw the facts out the window and have the jury find him guilty, if not for reasons of justice, then at least for reasons of chaos and comedy. Like, think about the coverage this morning if the show had done that after nine episodes of sticking mostly to the truth. People would have lost their minds.
On the other hand, a guilty verdict would have deprived me of the ability to make a GIF of David Schwimmer puking in the bathroom, so let’s all agree that this was the right call.
3) I really liked the show’s decision to get to the verdict at the midpoint of the extended episode, instead of dragging everything out to make it the end. Doing so not only kept the plot moving at a crisp pace, but also gave producers ample opportunity to show the fallout: The devastation of the prosecution, the elation of the defense, the news coverage, O.J. realizing that his struggles aren’t so much over as they are changing to a new venue, and so on.
I also liked the way the show gave each side a fair shake at their moment. I was concerned the defense’s celebration was going to feel really gross after the prosecution’s emotional press conference (especially after Darden broke down and hugged the Goldmans), and it did feel that way at first. But the look on Johnnie Cochran’s face as Bill Clinton was discussing race and the Justice Department’s decision to look into police misconduct kind of mitigated that. The show spent a lot of time laying the groundwork for that moment, so paying it off in that way felt earned.
4) Speaking of Johnnie, big fan of his “doesn’t fit, must acquit” realization in his office. I mean, that face. You can practically see the light bulb appear over his head.
5) Mixing in real footage of events from the time continued to be a nice touch, especially leading up to and immediately following the verdict. I’ve made this point a number of times now, but never was it more true than this moment: If you didn’t live through the trial, it is almost impossible to explain to someone what a big deal it was. That’s why the real footage was so important. Because you can tell people, “No, seriously, the entire country stopped what they were doing in the middle of the day to watch,” but it doesn’t drive the point home nearly as well as a real shot of a crowd watching live on the giant screen in Times Square.
6) You all remember where you were for the verdict, right, assuming you were old enough to process it all? I definitely remember. I was in eighth grade, in some sort of weird film elective class my school offered, and my teacher rolled in one of those old TV stands with a cable hookup so we could watch the verdict live in class. This made perfect sense at the time because it was all anyone had been talking about for months, but in hindsight, it’s like… We all stopped school to find out if a football player would go to jail for murder. That’s kind of crazy, right?
7) It was nice of the show to give us three more memorable Travolta-as-Shapiro moments on its way out the door. We had his parking lot freakout over Johnnie hiring security guards from Louis Farrakhan, we had the thing at the end where he stuck his chin out practically through the screen during his Barbara Walters interview to simultaneously take credit for the victory and wash his hands of all the tactics they used to win (an impressive little two-step), and we had my favorite moment, his sad face when no one wanted to hear about him sparring with Oscar de la Hoya. I’ll miss you the most, you maniacal genius. Never change.
8) This entire series could have very easily devolved into campy schlock, so credit to everyone involved for turning it into such fascinating, compelling television instead. And extra credit, and hopefully Emmy nominations, to the trio of Sterling K. Brown, Sarah Paulson, and Courtney B. Vance for their portrayals of Christopher Darden, Marcia Clark, and Johnnie Cochran, respectively. The three of them turned in really incredible performances, and added lots of shading and depth to three people who had become caricatures over the years. And each of them got one more big moment in the finale:
- Sarah Paulson’s delivery of the speech about fighting for victims, and being a victim herself, was terrific. Not that we should be surprised at this point. She displayed more emotion smoking a cigarette in this series than most actors do over the course of a career.
- Sterling K. Brown got a few moments, too, from his closing statement to his emotional collapse at the press conference to him almost — almost — getting in the last word with Johnnie one time.
- And I say “almost” because, in addition to that thundering closing, Courtney B. Vance got to deliver his “That’s the victory” line during the aforementioned Clinton speech.
Just a great job, all around.
9) There were lots of emotional moments throughout the series, perhaps most notably in the episode that gave viewers a glimpse into Marcia Clark’s life, but nothing got to me quite like the scene with the Goldman family in their car after the verdict. That “What are we gonna do now?” was such a punch in the gut, as was ending the “Where Are They Now?” segment with the shot of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. It was easy to forget during the show, as it was at the time, that this whole circus started with two very real people getting murdered, so it was nice that the series refused to let that get pushed too far into the background.
10) In closing, I’d just like to reiterate how much I enjoyed this show. I took quite a bit of pleasure in poking fun at it back when it was announced, and was expecting more of a campy mess than a gripping and addictive drama, but I am happy to admit here that I was very wrong. I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a season of television so much. It wasn’t just the action on the screen, either. It was all the little rabbit holes it sent me scooting down, looking back at old news stories and searching YouTube for old clips and learning about failed television shows starring O.J. Simpson as a beach bum former Navy SEAL. And I have so many GIFs of John Travolta now. My word. I certainly did not expect that to happen. The series was terrific in almost every way, so to everyone involved, allow me to express my appreciation in what I consider to be the most fitting way possible…