Review: The glove fits; O.J. trial series guilty of 'stunning' performances

Robert Bianco
Sarah Paulson and Christian Clemenson play prosecutors Marcia Clark and Bill Hodgman in FX's 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.'

Once again, O.J. engulfs us.

It was the last, great “trial of the century,” the 1994 case against O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ron Goldman. An all-consuming media circus that touched every hot wire of that decade and our own, from race and class divisions to concerns over police misconduct and justice for purchase, Simpson's televised trial ushered in a world in which news is entertainment and celebrity is everything.

By the end, most of us who lived through it had had our fill of it. So the risk for FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT, **** out of four) is that it could seem inaccurate or old hat to those who know the story, dull or impenetrable to those who don’t, and cheap and exploitative to all. Yet against all odds, this tightly written, sometimes stunningly performed 10-part drama avoids all those pitfalls, capturing the tenor of the time and breathing life into the participants. Not to mention re-creating a crackling good courtroom drama that fiction can only envy.

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Produced by American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, who also directed three of the first six episodes made available for preview, Simpson is not about the murder itself, which we do not see (at least not in the episodes provided). It’s about the people involved in the trial, and the startling contrasts surrounding a case in which perceptions of guilt and innocence seemed to divide along racial lines.

All of which would be an academic exercise without a script that keeps the story's multiple pieces moving in sync and a set of Emmy-worthy performances. Those include turns by Cuba Gooding Jr., who portrays Simpson as explosive and child-like without showing his guilty-or-innocent hand; David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian; Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey; Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden; Steven Pasquale as Mark Fuhrman, and John Travolta as Robert Shapiro — the broadest performance, in the most broadly written role.

The heart and soul of the series, however, belongs to Courtney B. Vance’s defense attorney, Johnnie Cochran, and Sarah Paulson’s prosecutor, Marcia Clark — two great actors in two great roles. Vance and Paulson take the trial's two main combatants, who became heroes to some and buffoonish villains to others, and humanize them in a way that allows us to see them anew, and admire them both. Oh, and if Paulson doesn’t break your heart in the sixth hour, you should have it checked.

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The sympathy and humanity accorded Cochran and Clark is the watermark of this series, which in its attempt to present both sides of the case might, for some, prove to be healing. Those, however, who only want to see their own viewpoint vindicated are advised to look elsewhere.

That's not the only caveat. The use of Kardashian's now-famous children to convey a message about the coming dangers of a celebrity-obsessed culture is heavy-handed and unnecessary. And while this may be the finest work Murphy has ever done, as with any project from this gifted but undisciplined producer, any recommendation comes with a warning that the hours we’ve yet to see could slide off the rails. Or they could all hold together, and forge not just a great series, but an important one.

Let's hope that's the final verdict.


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