That aptly sums up the central thesis of FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10p.m. and is currently Certified Fresh at 94 percent. It isn’t delivered by the titular character, however, or a member of Simpson’s famous “dream team” of celebrity lawyers, or even the prosecutors thrust into the national spotlight.
Rather, it’s Kato Kaelin, played by Billy Magnussen, who makes that simple but wise observation after being flashed by an adoring group of women in a convertible, only to be spat upon by a passing jogger less than 10 seconds later. Kato was not an accessory to the murders O.J. Simpson was accused of committing; to the media, he was just a himbo who lived on O.J.’s property.
O.J. Simpson’s murder trial dominated news headlines for more than a year, touching off discussions about race relations and the influence celebrity and social class have on the justice system. These same issues continue to ignite debate and protest movements more than two decades later; anger over police misconduct and discrimination has reached a boiling point in cities across America today, as it did then.
Presented by executive producers Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson, The People v. O.J. Simpson nevertheless manages to be undeniably entertaining — even absurdly comical at times — while instilling a sense of gravitas to the hot-button issues it explores. Read on to find out why this 10-episode limited series is likely to be one the most talked about dramas of the season.
The People v. O.J. Simpson, the first installment in the new American Crime Story franchise from executive producer Ryan Murphy, Brad Simpson, and Nina Jacobson, focuses on watershed cases that had a measurable impact on society. Reportedly, season two will take on the social and political fallout from Hurricane Katrina.
In comparison to Katrina, the O.J. Simpson murder trial may seem as if it were chosen for its lurid appeal. But it permanently shifted our relationship with the media.
Simpson was a Hall of Famer and actor whose celebrity enabled him to transcend race. He enjoyed luxuries and entitlements not afforded to most African Americans. Once he was charged with two counts of murder, he fled in a white Ford Bronco with his friend Al Cowlings driving as he held a gun to his own head. On that day — June 17, 1994 — around 95 million viewers tuned in to watch the low-speed pursuit for hours as it was filmed from helicopters hovering above the highway.
The media circus surrounding the trial, which unfolded over the 15 and a half months after Simpson was charged, birthed a new era of tabloid journalism and non-stop celebrity coverage. For example, Harvey Levin, who covered the trial for local news in Los Angeles, would eventually parlay his association with the case to into his own measure of fame before founding TMZ.
All of this is public record. What The People v. O.J. Simpson does differently from other historical dramatizations is tell the tale from an emotional source, relating each step of the case through what each of the people closest to the case went through outside of the courtroom.
O.J. Simpson had a casting mastermind in Robert Shapiro, counsel of choice to the rich and famous, who assembled one of the most high-powered defense teams in modern times: F. Lee Bailey, Johnnie Cochran, and O.J.’s best friend Robert Kardashian, with Alan Dershowitz acting as appellate adviser.
Murphy met that challenge by recruiting Academy Award-winner Cuba Gooding Jr. to play Simpson and John Travolta to play Shapiro. David Schwimmer portrays Kardashian, Nathan Lane appears as Bailey, and Courtney B. Vance is a knockout as Johnnie Cochran. Sarah Paulson, one of Murphy’s muses, attacks the role of prosecutor Marcia Clark, and is paired with Sterling K. Brown as the case’s co-prosecutor Christopher Darden, with Evan Handler as Dershowitz. The cast also includes Cheryl Ladd as Shapiro’s wife Linell, Malcolm-Jamal Warner portraying A.C. Cowlings, Selma Blair playing Kris Jenner, and Steven Pasquale as Mark Fuhrman.
Murphy imbued a particular meaning in these casting choices, as Gooding sees it. “I really hate talking about myself like this, but people see me as a good guy. They see me as someone very friendly and someone that they can hang out with. And that’s how we saw O.J. Simpson,” he says. “He’s as commercialized as you get. And in that state, you take him to this really dark place. But I’m not here to do an impersonation.”
Take away the celebrity, the cameras, the tell-alls and the rest of the tabloid coverage, and what’s left is a solemn truth: the people who should have been this case’s focus became footnotes in a tale of their own violent deaths.
But this is still a TV show, one produced by Murphy (who, admirably, dials back his signature level of dark humor) from a script developed for television by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and the actors grant the subject the respectfulness it merits.
Having said that, viewers may argue over whether Travolta’s mesmerizing portrayal of Shapiro is either fabulously terrible, or the best version of terrible ever. In an interview, Travolta reveals he decided not to meet Shapiro, although producers gave the cast that option after lifting an initial ban on contacting the people involved with the actual case. “Once you get on a role of your interpretation, it could complicate it to add to it,” Travolta explains. “But there were three books written that I read, that I felt I had so much information about him, the vintage video of his style of legal work… I mean, all of this was documented so well that I felt like I had enough information to build a character and to portray him.”
Apparently so: the man munches scenery like an amped-up goat at an overgrown Sonoma vineyard. When this combines in place with Murphy’s specific music selections, the results are magical.
“That’s an interesting thing that we had to explore: Who are these people that would put themselves in this position?” Travolta asks. “Bob’s fighting his way to be in front the camera, and Johnnie’s doing his own version. Marcia’s doing her own version, and getting a new hairdo!”
There’s also the unavoidable fact that in the 20-plus years since the trial, Robert Kardashian’s children have become far more famous than he ever was in life. (Kardashian passed away in 2003.) In spite of Schwimmer’s measured performance, some moments featuring Kim, Khloe, Kourtney, and Rob as children may seem a bit too tongue-in-cheek for the drama’s tone. Schwimmer defends one scene in which Robert passionately tells the kids that fame is fleeting, hollow, and “means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
“The way I’d always interpreted that scene was, he’s actually talking to himself,” Schwimmer explains. “He’s saying, ‘You’re about to go on this crazy ride where you’re going to become incredibly famous, and it’s going to affect every aspect of your life. Remember who you are.’ That’s what he’s saying when he’s telling his kids — but he’s really talking to himself.” Fair enough. But it’s tough to ignore that he’s saying that in front of the eventual wife of Kanye West, and the girl who will one day be the host of Kocktails with Khloe.
Also worth noting is Connie Britton’s delectably unctuous portrayal of Faye Resnick. Britton only appears a few times within the first six episodes, but when the focus is on her, you’ll be thankful that the produces brought her on board.
The People v. O.J. Simpson also takes a hard look at gender and social discrimination in the media and the workplace, with Clark, Darden, and Cochran’s plotlines most poignantly illustrating this. In the series, almost from the moment she gets the case, Paulson’s Clark must navigate her boss’s sexist decisions as well as contend with insulting analysis of her clothing, her hair, and her comportment in the media. “I just wish people hadn’t been so quick to abandon her,” Paulson says, “and I wonder why there wasn’t more… warding off [of] people who decided she should wear more makeup and have better clothes. What does that have to do with anything in terms of justice and putting a murderer behind bars? I don’t even know why what’s on the table. And it only is because she’s a woman.”
Brown, meanwhile, sensed what it was like for Darden to contend with a different kind of workplace discrimination. “He was not the high man on the totem pole by any stretch of the imagination,” the actor said, but noted that the barriers to Darden’s portrayal are presented with subtlety. Watch the three-way conversations that Darden and Clark have with their boss, Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood), and note the fact Garcetti only answers his observations by speaking to Marcia. “It was something I asked one of our writers about,” Brown says. “I said to him, ‘You notice that [Gil] never talks to me?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I know.’”
The People v. O.J. Simpson also takes on the stickier issues of race through the related and separate stories of Darden and Johnnie Cochran, who were allies in private but enemies in court, and how their dynamic highlighted a rift among African Americans. “It was important to us to show complexity in the African-American community’s side of it, especially in Chris Darden versus Johnnie Cochran, and the idea that this wasn’t just a conversation happening between white people and black people, but within the African American community,” says Brad Simpson. “Certainly Chris went through something incredibly intense within the African American community, and we tried to portray that.”
The producers and cast are adamant that the show doesn’t make a case for or against Simpson as the murderer of Goldman and his ex-wife. “Everybody’s going to bring their opinion. They’re either going to think that he did it, or he didn’t do it,” Gooding says. “We’re not here to change your opinion, because we can’t. Our job, if we do it right… when you see the last one and they say, ‘Not guilty,’ you’ll go, ‘Oh yeah, well I get it now, I get why that happened.’”
Paulson adds, “I hope that by the end of this series there’s some real understanding of what we all did collectively watching the trial, of how undone we all were with the dizzying effects of the circus of it all. That none of us had a tenth of the facts that everyone involved did, but everybody had an opinion.”
Schwimmer aspires for viewers to leave the series with an understanding of “how much hubris was involved. I mean, how many decisions were made because of ego, or arrogance, or assumption — human error, really. Misjudgment, or bad judgment, or pre-judgment. Because I didn’t know any of that when I was living it.”
Gooding also is hopeful that The People v. O.J. Simpson will, in some way, help forward the dialogue about race relations in America. “I had lived through the L.A. Riots, the Rodney King beating,” Gooding recalls. “I had been harassed by police growing up in L.A. as a break dancer. So I knew the frustrations I felt when they said ‘Not guilty.’ And I think that people will experience those same frustrations again, and that’s important for the healing process. It’s important for change, to have that dialogue out there.”
Melanie McFarland is a Seattle-based TV critic and an executive member of the Television Critics Association. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision
The People V. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is currently Certified Fresh at 94 percent. It premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10p.m. on FX; read reviews here.