The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story could have been terrible. It probably should have. It’s an anthology series from the guy who gave us Glee, starring Boat Trip‘s Cuba Gooding, Jr., about a fatigued trial we already knew the verdict for. Plus, this instantly-iconic photo. Instead, American Crime Story turned into one of the best, most entertaining shows of the year.
How did this happen?
Well, that instantly-iconic photo helped (it stirred up interest in the series, even if, because of the picture, most thought it would be a trainwreck), as did Sarah Paulson’s heartbreaking performance as Marcia Clark, and Courtney B. Vance’s equally fantastic Johnnie Cochran. But beyond American Crime Story serving as a wonderful showcase for lengthy, scenery-chewing monologues, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, with help from producer Ryan Murphy, created something that was a just-right mix of over-the-top camp and prestige drama. In other words, it’s what Murphy’s American Horror Story has been trying to be since, well, season one. Here are some lessons American Horror Story, which returns to FX this fall, should learn from American Crime Story.
Pay attention to this! No wait, look at that! Just kidding, your focus ought to be over there! Commercial break. Lady Gaga’s doing something! Now here!
That’s what it’s like watching American Horror Story, the most easily distractible show on television. Every scattered act is telling three stories at once, and the whole thing ends up being a mess of half-thought-out ideas. When American Horror Story slows down, it can accomplish great things, like the “I Am Anne Frank” two-parter from Asylum. Those episodes were focused and clear-eyed, despite the ridiculous premise. But a lot of great art sounds ridiculous on paper. “A space farmer befriends two robots and saves a princess who turns out to be his sister from their heavy-breathing father with the help of a rogue whose last name is Solo — GET IT — and his giant dog-thing.” Who’d want to see that movie? However, when the same film is redescribed as “a young hero saves the galaxy,” you get Star Wars. Every episode of American Crime Story can be summed up in a few words — “the jury episode,” “the glove episode,” “the race card episode.” The same can’t be said about American Horror Story, because it would take too long to say.