True crime is in the air these days, and American Crime Story knows it. American Crime Story also sees the competition and laughs in its face, because why take on the Manson murders or a potentially framed Wisconsin man when you can have the biggest murder trial in the history of America?
In this sense, American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson — the first installment in what will no doubt be another long and profitable anthology series for its network, FX — bears the obvious hallmark of its co-executive producer and biggest name. Ryan Murphy is not a man in the business of biting off less than he can chew; when he decides to throw his hat in the preposterously overcrowded crime drama ring, he goes all in. Why not go for broke? Why not take on the trial that somehow managed to combine every American obsession into one gruesome, engrossing horror show? Why not roll together race, gender, sport, celebrity, wealth, and ego and hurl it back in the country’s face after more than 20 years?
This is why Murphy’s fans and critics, and I count myself as part of both groups, have watched American Crime Story develop with such horrified fascination. Because if this show promised to contain all of Murphy’s signature tics, dialed up to 11 — celebrity stunt casting! an overcrowded ensemble! lots of violence! — then it also promised to have the most quintessentially Murphy trait of all: an inevitable, spectacular veering off its rails, likely caused by his instinctual preference for camp over the gravity his subject matter sometimes deserves. Could the man who shot a Very Special Episode just four months after Sandy Hook and called it “Shooting Star,” or clumsily shaped American Horror Story: Coven into a war between two racially divided rival witch gangs, or refused to kill off his spoiled, bigoted antiheroine(s) on Scream Queens really be trusted to handle… OJ?
The answer, against every conceivable odd, is yes. That’s because American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson may be the first show in Ryan Murphy’s entire oeuvre that recognizes his weaknesses and strengths and assigns manpower accordingly — likely an inadvertent consequence of his packed schedule, yet a positive one nonetheless. This may also have something to do with the fact that “every script, every cut of every episode, and every line” had to go through “at least five lawyers,” but the result is an account that genuinely, and surprisingly, captures the trial in a way that’s riveting without feeling voyeuristic.
It all starts with the source material. Though everyone over the age of around 30 can probably recount every detail of the OJ case, down to where they were when the verdict was read, The People v. OJ Simpson is based on The Run of His Life, the 1996 account by longtime New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who himself makes a brief cameo in the series. The work of translating Toobin’s book into scripts is done not by Murphy himself — shockingly, neither he nor his creative partner and fellow executive producer Brad Falchuk have a single writing credit so far — but by co-creators and frequent collaborators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. The decision to adapt rather than play by ear doesn’t just provide American Crime Story with legal cover; it also lends it structure, a notorious Murphy flaw, and an almost Sorkin-esque density of information.
The People v. OJ Simpson, however, also benefits from the 20/20 hindsight that’s accumulated in the two decades since Toobin’s book. Before we see Simpson himself (Cuba Gooding Jr.) leave his Bel Air mansion for the airport-bound limo, the series opens with newsreel footage from the riots that shook Los Angeles just two years before, and the acquittal of four police officers for use of excessive force against Rodney King that sparked them. As viewers in 2016, we know that the refusal to convict, or even indict, police officers hasn’t changed — only the names of the victims and perpetrators. We also know before Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) warns Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) that Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) is indeed “the real deal,” and that his anger at the LAPD is both authentic and justified.
American Crime Story‘s most significant revision, however, might be the reputation of Clark herself. Here, she’s presented as a feminist tragic heroine: ferocious, well-meaning, and caught up in forces she either can’t understand (Why do people love OJ so much? Why can’t people believe he’s guilty?) or can’t fight (What do you mean, I should “smile more”?). A newly single mother negotiating a divorce and raising two sons, she still fully commits to the OJ case, seeing it for both exactly what it is and what, thanks to factors she can’t see until it’s too late, it’s so much more than: a domestic violence case, pure and simple, with two victims who deserve justice.
Paulson does phenomenal work here, which is all the more impressive when you learn she was working two jobs for Murphy at once. Clark has never heard of OJ until she gets the call about two homicides in Brentwood; her irritation at the cult of his celebrity is sharp and cathartic. “I have no idea what that means,” she snaps in response to a colleague’s awestruck summary of his on-field accomplishments. “And you know what? It shouldn’t matter.” But when she comes to understand just what this case means to a community she’ll never be a part of, Clark is understanding, never dismissive. By the time we see her dismissed by a pool of potential jurors as a “bitch,” her martyrdom is sealed. And just as we can now view OJ through the lens of our renewed focus on police brutality, we can reinterpret Marcia through our renewed frustration with how female public figures are discussed and treated.
Never fear, though; while Paulson and Vance play the trial’s equal and opposite moral centers with a quiet force, they’re surrounded by supporting players who bring the volume Murphy tends to draw out of his repertory. Some are returnees: Connie Britton is having what can only be described as the time of her goddamn life with Faye Resnick, the rasping, gloriously shameless “memoir” author who would later claim her rightful place as a C-list Bravolebrity. More are new: John Travolta preens and pouts as Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane oozes smarm as F. Lee Bailey, and David Schwimmer continues to bring in that Schwimmer money as a jittery Robert Kardashian. Multiple unnecessary scenes foreshadowing his children’s future mega-fame reassure us that this is, after all, a Murphy show.
Strangely enough, Murphy’s main involvement in the series appears to be from behind the director’s chair, where he spends three of the first six episodes. Initially, this seems odd — true to its genre, American Crime Story‘s color palate is desaturated and its look mostly natural, both anathema to Murphy’s aesthetic. But then one starts to notice the jumpy, almost mockumentary-style camerawork; the sudden shifts to faux-video footage from a paparazzo’s camera or ’90s-era CNN; the rapid PushCams and random diagonal angles. It’s an odd mix of cable-style high production values with period-appropriate conventions, just as restless and diverse in its influences as the director himself. It’s just enough oddball energy to make American Crime Story exhilarating, but not enough to throw it off its mission. And it suggests that there might be a place for great Ryan Murphy shows after all — as long as he doesn’t get in his own way.
American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson premieres Tuesday, February 2 at 10 pm on FX.