Is latest franchise from the Ryan Murphy empire American Crime Story yet another flashy trashy cash-in or is there something special about The People vs. O.J. Simpson?
Coming off the back of Horace and Pete, it feels strange to be talking about Ryan Murphy, a man who can only be described as the polar opposite of everything Louis C.K. was attempting with the former show. Murphy’s associated with the likes of Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens, loud, brazen and genuinely popular TV series that I’ve heard aptly described as moment-to-moment television.
Todd VanDerWerff sums it up brilliantly in his review of the pilot for American Horror Story: Murder House for the A.V. Club:
“The key to understanding any Murphy show (and any Falchuk show, by extension) is that Murphy long ago lost any interest in concrete storytelling. What he does is manufacture moments, and when those moments are powerful enough—any number of surgery sequences on Nip/Tuck, the kids coming together to sing “Don’t Stop Believin’” at the end of the Glee pilot—they have a tendency to wash away anything else that doesn’t really work. Murphy’s pursued this ADD storytelling style across four shows, now, and it gets a little more sped up every time, a little less concerned with consistent characters or coherent storytelling or anything other than creating a single scene that captures you in the moment and makes you scream or laugh or sympathize.
And that can be fun, no question! Even the worst episodes of a Murphy TV series have some good stuff in them. It’s chocolate box TV, where every scene is something different, and you’re going to have a bunch of different tastes to sample throughout the hour.”
You can read his perceptive analysis of American Horror Story‘s first episode here: http://www.avclub.com/tvclub/american-horror-story-american-horror-story-62867
But I’m not here to talk about Murphy’s back catalogue, but rather about American Crime Story which premiered earlier this year. And it’s unusual for being the only one of Murphy’s many shows to receive primarily positive reviews from critics, something that I was incredibly confused by after seeing the first few episodes of the show.
To call the opening episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson trashy would be an understatement. They’re as loud and obvious as anything that Murphy has ever done, particularly in Cuba Gooding Jr.’s performance as O.J. which is oddly reminiscent of Tracy Morgan’s work on SNL. O.J. is portrayed as an screaming emotional mess, and the entirety of his infamous attempt to flee from custody is cranked up to eleventy. Best friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and lawyer Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) are shallow caricatures, rushing around trying to help him. Other characters lurk on the sidelines, little more than placeholders for when they’ll become relevant.
But when the series enters the courtroom for the first time, something magical happens. Suddenly, it ceases to be a show about O.J. Simpson, and becomes the story of a battle between justice for victims of domestic abuse and larger racial politics. Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark and Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran become the show’s new protagonists, and with each and every episode American Crime Story snowballs into becoming perceptive, significant and most importantly spellbinding.
The beats for those who are familiar with the original trial are all here, but they’re told not from the perspective of the outside world, but from how they affect the cases of the defence and prosecution. It would be difficult to go any further without discussing Sarah Paulson’s deservedly Emmy-winning performance, transforming Marcia Clark from ‘the prosecutor who let O.J. off’ into a rich moving human being. At her side is Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who delivers a politically-charged antithesis both to Clark and Cochran with such subtlety that it’s hard to believe he’s in the same show as the defending team. Kenneth Choi’s thankless turn as Judge Lance Ito is also worthy of tremendous praise, and seems to have been overlooked for the most part.
There’s a reason that Courtney B. Vance’s raw power and precision stand out so much on the other side of the bench – he’s one of only two actors playing the defence who doesn’t sink into ridiculous caricature. Nathan Lane, Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta are all guilty of failing to escape the single note they play from their first appearances, but they’re thankfully (and perhaps surprisingly) mostly irrelevant to the plot. Shapiro in particular gets the short end of the stick and from about episode four onwards is consciously played for laughs. The other breakout character from the defence is shockingly Robert Kardashian, whose trajectory is transformed from lackey into tragic figure from the moment he realises that his dear friend may in fact be guilty. It’s hard to reconcile the cringe-worthy scene in which Kardashian tells his children that being good people is more important than being celebrities with the poignant disgust he has on display in the second half of the series.
By the end of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the beginning is but a distant memory. The greatest obstacle to the show’s tension should be the fact that everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that a Not Guilty verdict is on the way, but at a certain point it ceases to be an end point and becomes a sad inevitability. Episode six ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ is a particularly emotional hour of television, a biting fight-back against the disgraceful attitude of the press towards Marcia Clark and women in general, an attitude that STILL pervades today.
And despite the fact that I was viciously and pointlessly routing for the prosecution, the series understands that there are more stakes for Johnnie Cochran than simply acquitting O.J. – there is a wider cost for both sides, a different kind of justice that Clark and Cochran are personally invested in. The details of the case are fascinating, but it was the characters in that context that made The People v. O.J. so mesmerising. One of my favourite scenes came in which Clark and Darden join one of the latter’s friends fro his birthday, and she is questioned about whether O.J. is the victim a police conspiracy. Paulson plays Clark’s outline of why the defense’s case is ludicrous with humour and fun, further deepening her emotional connection with Darden in the process.
In the end, it’s a real pleasure to thoroughly recommend American Crime Story, and to retract any sentiment that Paulson, Vance and Brown aren’t deserving of their Emmy wins, even if some of the other actors’ nominations are notably iffy. The People vs. O.J. builds the kind of character development, hard-hitting themes and good pacing that Murphy has never managed to achieve in the past, and all credit goes to showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for adapting incredibly difficult source material with taste and flair.
Verdict: Not guilty of being just another Ryan Murphy amusement park ride – American Crime Story is surprisingly hefty, developing into a tasteful, important and compelling re-interpretation of the O.J. trial, showcasing some of the year’s best performances in Paulson, Vance and Brown.