The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story
A true-story miniseries with profound implications for life in the United States today
The first season of American Crime Story is really a 10-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the United States, I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away the way it blew away many television critics. The People v. O. J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. For a television miniseries, The People v. O. J. Simpson is indeed very good. But in my opinion, it’s not quite deserving of all the acclaim.
Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is.
The People v. O. J. Simpson begins with the police arriving at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was well done, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were several marvelous scenes in the courtroom (and outside it). But in the end, The People v. O. J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries do: it’s too long for what it offers.
In particular, I thought the second episode was poorly conceived, and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco holding a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe 15 to 20 minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was unnecessary and boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this one example alone prevents me from calling the show great.
Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson, and his whiny voice doesn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defense team. Regardless of how close Travolta comes to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting makes Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe. Other members of the defense team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defense. Vance is superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane is also very good as F. Lee Bailey, and David Schwimmer has his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend Robert Kardashian.
Other actors of note are Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the Los Angeles district attorney, who does fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who is solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side by side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impress me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.
I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. The People v. O. J. Simpson is definitely superior television. The story it tells has, correctly, been presented with the big picture in mind, namely the underlying issues of racism and celebrity, both of which have played huge roles in the history of the United States. It’s worth a look.
The People v. O. J. Simpson is made for television and is probably only worth a PG-13 for theme.
All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.