The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is an upcoming limited series from FX and executive producer Ryan Murphy. Focusing on what came to be known as “the trial of the century,” the series will, according to FX, “explore the chaotic behind-the-scenes dealings and maneuvering on both sides of the court, and how a combination of prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness, and the LAPD’s history with the city’s African-American community gave a jury what it needed: reasonable doubt.” So, uh, spoilers?
Anyway, there’s a lot to unpack in there. It’s difficult to overstate what a big deal the trial was at the time. People — millions of them — watched court proceedings on television. The lawyers became front-page tabloid fodder. It really got out of hand. And now the producer of Glee and American Horror Story is making it a 10-part miniseries.
Let’s see if we can help make sense of it all.
Is it, like, good?
We’ll start with this: The People v. O.J. Simpson is immensely addictive. FX released screeners for the first six episodes of the series, and I watched them all straight through in one shot. This wasn’t my plan. My plan was to split them up a bit. But then, there I was, five-ish hours later, fully submerged in the series and livid that now I have to wait two months — until the seventh episode airs on March 17 — to pick it back up. I’m not exactly sure how that will play out when the time comes for the home audience to watch it one episode per week, but man, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a more binge-able show.
As far as it being “good”… yup. There’s definitely a good show in there. Possibly a very good one. Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown are excellent as prosecution lawyers Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, respectively. Especially Paulson. She’s going to get an Emmy nomination, and she’ll deserve it. One episode — the sixth, titled, I promise, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia” — made me feel a gut-punch level of empathy for Marcia Clark that I never expected I’d feel. And Courtney B. Vance is really, really terrific as Johnny Cochran. There are significant chunks of this that play like real, True Detective-season-one prestige drama murder mystery.
There are other moments, however, that play a little more like you’d think a Ryan Murphy show about the Simpson trial would play. It’s like the show wants to play it straight but sometimes it can’t help itself.
What do you mean by “sometimes it can’t help itself”?
At the beginning of the third episode, Robert Kardashian, played by David Schwimmer, who also played Ross on Friends, delivers this speech to his children, who will grow up to become those Kardashians: “We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
That’s not so much the show winking at the audience as it is the show reaching through the screen, grabbing the audience by its shirt, and shouting “Get it?! Because of the future!” There are a few other moments like this. And Schwimmer calls O.J. “Juice” so many times that if you made a drinking game out of it you’d need a new liver by the middle of the season. He’s incredible.
And then there’s John Travolta, who plays defense attorney Robert Shapiro as what I can best describe as a medicated billionaire used-car salesman. That’s not a shot at Travolta. It’s wonderful. I can’t wait for you all to see it. It’s the live-action version of this picture.
What about the rest of the cast?
There are a lot of recognizable faces in this show. A sampling:
- Cuba Gooding, Jr. — from Jerry Maguire! — plays O.J. Simpson
- Malcolm-Jamal Warner — Theo Huxtable! — plays Al Cowlings
- Nathan Lane — from The Producers! — plays F. Lee Bailey
- Connie Britton — Mrs. Coach! — plays Faye Resnick
- Selma Blair — from Cruel Intentions! — plays Kris Jenner
- Cheryl Ladd — from Charlie’s Angels! — plays Robert Shapiro’s wife, Linell
- Steven Pasquale — from Rescue Me! — plays Mark Fuhrman
- Jordana Brewster — from the Fast & Furious movies! — plays Nicole Brown’s sister, Denise
- Robert Morse — Bert Cooper from Mad Men! — plays Dominick Dunne
But my favorite bit of casting, and it’s not even close, is present-day Larry King — in a wig! — as 1995 Larry King. Everyone else has an actor representing them, including Jeffrey Toobin, the New Yorker writer who went on to write the book on which the series is based, but then they got to King and were like, “Eh, put a wig on him.” I love this.
Hey, does Nathan Lane say the N-word kind of a lot?
This will require context.
Race is one of the major themes of the series, understandably. The trial took place in Los Angeles just three years after a group of LAPD officers were found not guilty for their role in the beating of Rodney King, despite video proof of their actions running on every news station in America for months. The riots that followed tore the city apart both literally and figuratively, and the wounds from it all were still very fresh.
During the trial, defense attorney F. Lee Bailey was responsible for the cross-examination of LAPD officer Mark Fuhrman, who found the bloody glove at the scene of the crime. During his questioning, Bailey asked Fuhrman a number of times about his attitudes regarding race, and specifically, if he had ever used the N-word. But Bailey didn’t say “the N-word.” He said the actual word. In a televised court proceeding that was watched live by millions.
As mentioned above, Nathan Lane plays Bailey on the show. This scene is in there. So yes, Nathan Lane says the N-word kind of a lot. I did not expect to type that last sentence at all in 2016.
Should I watch it?
Oh God. Oh yes. You definitely should watch. You have to watch. It’s riveting television, for all the reasons I discussed above, but also because watching it will take you right back to those real-life moments, if you’re old enough to remember them. And if you’re not, it will probably keep you Googling for a good 10-15 minutes after each episode.
But mostly, selfishly, you all have to watch so I have someone to talk about all of this with. Because I am six episodes in, and keeping most of it to myself is killing me.
The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday, February 2 at 10 p.m. on FX