TV review: ‘The People v. O.J.’ revisits trial with glee
Racial tension, police brutality, true crime, the Kardashians — suddenly 1994 doesn’t seem all that long ago.
That’s part of what makes Ryan Murphy’s dazzling “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” such an engrossing watch. Framed in the context of today, it deals with many of the same elements that continue to be at the forefront of modern life.
Meanwhile, it combines all the aspects of sex, murder, race, sports, celebrity, money and power that made it the Hollywood-ready, pop spectacle that dominated the ’90s and continues to reverberate today.
The 10-part series, which kicks off Tuesday on FX, doesn’t deal in bombshell revelations. You already know the outcome. Yet you can’t stop watching, thanks to Murphy’s flashy dramatization, which is just the approach the “Trial of the Century” richly deserves.
The first episode opens with footage of the 1992 L.A. riots that erupted in the wake of the Rodney King beating verdict. It’s a reminder of the backdrop against which the trial played out, as well as a nod to the current Black Lives Matter movement.
Then we’re introduced to the players who make up the trial’s indelible cast of characters. Cuba Gooding Jr. is O.J. Simpson, and he plays the fallen football star with a sullen resignation that gives way to explosive bouts of hubris. John Travolta is defense attorney Bob Shapiro, his pulled back scare-face and pursed lips a perfect approximation of the superstar lawyer.
Murphy regular Sarah Paulson shines as Marcia Clark, the driven district attorney who caves under the intense glare of the media spotlight. And Detroit native Courtney B. Vance is dynamite as Johnnie Cochran, whose calm exterior is propelled by an internal drive to win.
The excellent cast also includes Sterling K. Brown as assistant prosecutor Christopher Darden, Nathan Lane as legal bigwig F. Lee Bailey, Billy Magnussen as clueless houseboy Kato Kaelin and Connie Britton as Nicole Brown Simpson’s friend Faye Resnick, and all do stellar work.
And then there’s David Schwimmer, who is a hoot as O.J.’s lapdog pal, Robert Kardashian, who is always referring to O.J. as “Juice.”
In an early episode, Kardashian deals with his newfound fame by trying to impart the following wisdom to his starstruck kids: “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.” (Insert your own rimshot here.)
That is the fun of Murphy’s storytelling (and the script by “The People vs. Larry Flynt” screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski), which is loose and self-aware enough to include those asides. (Southfield native Selma Blair’s Kris Jenner should get her own spinoff series.)
From “Nip/ Tuck” to “Glee” to “American Horror Story,” Murphy has always shown a perverse love for glossy pop with a dark twist, and the O.J. trial is an ideal canvas for his vision. (At the end of the first episode, the beginning of the white Bronco freeway chase is scored to Nina Simone’s “I Shall Be Released,” if you’re wondering what sort of playful tone the series takes.)
There’s an utterly delicious moment at the end of the third episode when Cochran joins the defense team — Clark’s reaction is priceless — but Ron Goldman’s father (Joseph Siravo) crashes the party in the fourth episode and serves to remind that at the middle of the circus are two lost lives. A rare tonal misstep comes during a high society party in the fifth episode that pushes the story’s lines of racial division too far, yet when has Murphy not been one to step over the edge?
The O.J. Simpson trial thrust us into our current era of celebrity obsession; it was TMZ and reality TV before they existed. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” sends us right back to that era, and it’s more familiar than you might think.
‘The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’
10-part series begins at 10 p.m. Tuesday