Let’s be honest here: Months ago, back when you first heard that Ryan Murphy would be producing a limited series for FX about the O.J. Simpson trial, you were skeptical, right? I know I was. I had these images of a campy true crime mess flashing through my head, kind of like Serial meets American Horror Story, but about the most famous murder trial of the past 100 or so years. Starring John Travolta. Heck, I was having quite a bit of fun with the whole thing.
But then something strange happened: FX released the screeners for The People v. O.J. Simpson, and the reviews were almost unanimously positive. Including mine. This was Mr. Robot all over again. (I still have no idea how a hacker show on USA starring Christian Slater as a character named Mr. Robot ended up being that good.) The season premiere was last night, so hopefully all of you watched and can back me up. This is a really good show. Like, really good. I’m not sure I saw that coming.
1) The first episode took us from the discovery of the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman all the way up to O.J. hopping in Al Cowlings’ now-famous white Bronco and hitting the freeway. There was a lot going on in there — a lot of information to pass on, a lot of introductions to the main players, a lot of foundation to be put down — and the fact that they got to as much as they did without it feeling busy or overstuffed is a minor miracle. Part of its success was the added runtime that brought the commercial-free version of the episode to close to a full hour, and the fact that they could cut a few tiny corners because so many of the real-life events are already burned into the brains of most of the audience. But a bigger part was the crisp, fast-moving writing. First episodes are notoriously hard. Pulling this off the way they did deserved recognition. So, this is me doing that.
2) The opening of the episode — and thus, by definition, the opening of the whole series — offered a quick primer on the Rodney King case and subsequent riots, depicted through clips from news broadcasts. This gave viewers some of the historical context for the trial and the hyper-charged atmosphere at the time, but more importantly, it set up two of the big themes going forward: race and the media.
It’s hard to overstate how much those two elements drove the whole trial. Los Angeles was still healing — or at least trying to heal — from a racial powder keg blowing up and quite literally tearing the city apart, resulting in ongoing distrust between the black community and law enforcement from top to bottom. (Something that, unfortunately, still feels relevant today, following the events in Ferguson and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement.) And the Simpson trial was the first big trial in the era of 24-hour news. It drove media coverage for months and made stars — willing and otherwise — out of just about everyone involved. Millions watched unedited court proceedings on television. Unedited court proceedings are boring as all hell. It was a strange time.
3) The first episode also made an effort to humanize Marcia Clark. From the first moments we see her trying to feed her kids breakfast while getting herself ready for work, it’s like the show is trying to rebut the tightly-permed bungling caricature she became thanks to the coverage at the time and the end result of the trial. (A caricature that still remains vivid in pop culture, as we saw just last year when Tina Fey played a Clark-inspired character in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.) The version we see of her here is much different, and probably more accurate: a hard-charging, chain-smoking prosecutor who was handed one of the biggest murder trials in history at a turbulent time in her life. Sarah Paulson does a great job of getting this across (and as someone who has seen the first six episodes, I can confirm that her performance only gets better), providing perspective and nuance to someone we probably thought we already knew.
That said, are we supposed to believe that Marcia Clark only knew O.J. Simpson from the Hertz commercials? He was the Juice! Come on, lady!
4) We also met Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and started to see how a sense of duty is going to pull him into the trial’s orbit. He didn’t have too much to do in the premiere besides providing exposition about distrust of the LAPD and informing us that Michael Jackson was scared of the color lime, but he did manage to rip off one telling bit of foreshadowing with the line, “Sometimes money is the only way to get justice.”
5) In my review of this series a few weeks back, I described John Travolta’s performance as Robert Shapiro as “a medicated billionaire used car salesman.” I stand by this today and forever. It’s just… it’s wonderful. From the first moment we see him dropping names all over the table at dinner, to him repeatedly asking O.J. if he did it, to just his face and entire head in general. Everything about it is fascinating to me. I’m so glad this show finally premiered so we can all talk about it.
6) Also fascinating: David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. Here’s what I think we’re going to do: From now on, take a shot every time his character calls O.J. “Juice.” See how many of you make it out of the season alive. Because it happened seven times in the premiere. I counted.
7) Please consider this your periodic reminder that Kato Kaelin is upset about this episode of television because Cuba Gooding, Jr., in character as O.J. Simpson, mentions that Kaelin loves cheeseburgers even though Kaelin, by his own real-life account, stopped eating red meat years earlier. We live in a rich, mesmerizing world.
8) So, here’s the thing: This Kardashian business. I don’t know what to make of it. On one hand, yes, the family was intimately involved in the trial (on both sides, with Robert being close to O.J. and Kris being close to Nicole), so it makes perfect sense to have them make frequent appearances in the series. And according to Robert Kardashian, O.J. did threaten to kill himself in Kim Kardashian’s JTT-adorned childhood bedroom, so the facts back up that part of their story, too.
On the other hand, man, it did take me out of the flow of things a bit to hear Kris yelling at Khloe and Kourtney for misbehaving at the funeral and Robert shout, “Don’t kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom!” at a suicidal O.J. Maybe there’s no way around it. Maybe it would have been even weirder to not address it at all, or to try to skirt around it with vague “my daughters” and such. I don’t know. We’ll all have to come to terms with this one on our own, I think.
9) The bodies were discovered at the beginning of the episode by a heavyset man in a Hawaiian shirt who was alerted to their presence by a barking dog. It was all so Law & Order-esque that I half-expected Jerry Orbach to show up to investigate with a cup of coffee in hand and about 20 ex-wife jokes chambered. If I’m Dick Wolf this morning, I’m on the phone with Ryan Murphy demanding royalties.
10) Other quick notes:
- “Juice, you need juice?” “Knock that sh*t off, Kato!”
- The scene with the radio show where the black activists are discussing the trial… was it me, or did the guest sound a little like Denzel Washington? Or maybe just Jay Pharoah’s SNL impression of Denzel. Just the rhythms of the voice. I was in the middle of making a note the first time I watched the scene, and to my partially distracted mind, it was close enough that I was like, “Wait, no.”
- Weird moment: O.J. signs his suicide notes with smiley faces inside the O? That’s… something.
- One more bit of foreshadowing: When O.J. takes off in the Bronco, Marcia Clark says, “We’re gonna look like morons!” Oh, honey. Oh, you have no idea.
We’re one terrific episode in and we’re about to jump into the most famous slow-speed police chase in history. With Theo Huxtable driving! Yes, this will all do just fine.