The Anti-Nostalgia of ‘American Crime Story’ Makes It TV’s Best Period Piece in Years

This week’s episode of The People v. OJ Simpson, the first installment of FX’s latest anthology show American Crime Story, was widely and rightly praised as one of its best. It’s also the episode that diverges the most from the cultural consensus around the original OJ trial, and one has everything to do with the other.

Titled “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” it’s an excruciating hour of television that documents the crushing — and, by today’s standards, transparently sexist — public scrutiny placed on lead prosecutor Marcia Clark. As played by Sarah Paulson, who recently told Salon that a scene where Clark takes Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) to task for a condescending remark about childcare left her “so angry that it was making me shake,” Marcia has spent the series thus far as an only slightly tragic heroine. Misplaced confidence in her ability to get a conviction aside, Clark is competent, empathetic, and most importantly, furious at a serial domestic abuser while seemingly everyone else involved in the trial can’t stop fawning over OJ’s celebrity.

Most of Clark’s problems, however, stem from the exact same place as that particular strength: her inability to see that this isn’t a domestic violence case like any other. That’s true when it comes to how OJ’s race, and the LAPD’s history of racism, would play into the eventual acquittal, and it’s true when it comes to the unwanted fame Clark suddenly acquires. Enter the living nightmare of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” in which every aspect of Clark’s life is tried in the court of public opinion: her custody battle, which her most recent ex-husband takes to the press; her body, and the nude pictures of it her first ex-husband sells to a tabloid; and, of course, her hair.

None of this information is all that new, of course. Anyone who’s familiar with the trial remembers at least some of this — the hair, if nothing else. What “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” and the rest of American Crime Story, adds is perspective. It’s been 20 years since the trial, and it’s apparently taken every one of them to achieve the distance, and context, to tease apart everything that was happening in the Trial of the Century.

Much has been made of how the OJ Simpson trial turned out to be the Petri dish from which modern American culture sprung, and consequently what a perfect candidate it is for a dramatization in keeping with the current vogue for true crime. Police brutality is in the spotlight again, in the form of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement; so are the double standards we have for male and female public figures, in the form of the entire Democratic primary; and the way modern media culture turns the most mundane aspects of our lives into potential commodities, in the form of the Kardashians. (That family has arguably proven to be the trial’s most unlikely and longest-lasting legacy; they are in the unique position of both benefiting from the kind of fame it made possible and literally becoming famous because of it.)

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But American Crime Story‘s approach to its source material doesn’t just revive our memory of the trial — it actively aims to change it. The character of Marcia Clark is the most obvious example of the series’ revisionism; as the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg writes, “Pop culture feasted on [Clark] and has continued to do so as recently as last year,” when Tina Fey portrayed an unflattering and incompetent version of Clark on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey’s former workplace also took its fair share of potshots at the lawyer over the years, including a 1996 SNL sketch that featured Nancy Carrell and Tim Meadows as Clark and co-prosecutor Chris Darden. Paulson’s version of Clark seems intended as a corrective to her longstanding public image, an opportunity of which Clark herself is understandably taking full advantage: she’s given interviews over the last several weeks to New York magazineits pop culture site Vulture, and Slate.

The People v. OJ Simpson nonetheless takes this approach to any number of trial players. Darden, as played by Sterling K. Brown, gets an equally sympathetic portrait; viewers are reminded in the first episode that before OJ, Darden was actually tasked with prosecuting violent cops, and his ambivalence towards both facing off against Cochran, his onetime mentor, and serving as a living embodiment of plausible racial deniability for the DA’s office is underscored throughout. And Cochran himself gets one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent treatments of the entire show. As a man whose genuine fury at the injustice of unchecked LAPD power led to a well-intentioned but still monstrous injustice of its own, he’s almost as much a tragic figure as Clark.

The measured hindsight required for this kind of reevaluation, let alone one that operates on as many fronts as People v. OJ’s, feels like a direct result of the series’ secret ingredient: time. Set just 20 years ago, American Crime Story seems like an unlikely, or even preposterous, candidate for the title of “period piece”; our cultural memory of the ’90s, after all, is mostly stuck in the “remember when” stage, complete with giddy BuzzFeed listicles and winking Shaq cameos on Fresh Off the Boat. But People v. OJ feels like a watershed moment — one of our first works of art to move beyond doe-eyed nostalgia into an unflinching look at what we got wrong.

In this respect, at least, the series is comparable to Mad Men, which combined an aesthetic appreciation for ’60s-era glamor (or, in People v. OJ’s case, ’90s-era glasses and haircuts) with a demonstrated knowledge of the period’s endemic sexism, racism, and general disregard for the public health drawbacks of smoking. The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik once explained Mad Men’s existence, and its success, as the product of the “40-year itch,” in which middle-aged cultural gatekeepers use their power to look back on their own childhoods. Which makes sense for Matthew Weiner, but in the same piece, Gopnik also identified the “20 year-cycle… by which the 40-somethings recall their teenage years.” At the time of the OJ trial, American Crime Story co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were in their early 20s.

Not all works of historical fiction accomplish something as impressive or necessary. Downton Abbey, which wrapped up a six-season run on PBS this past Sunday, slipped into paternalistic gown-ogling sometime around Season 3 and stayed there. Yet People v. OJ‘s ability to both spot the complexities those caught up in the media frenzy — which is to say the entire country — couldn’t at the time and connect them to ongoing problems places it among the best period dramas in culture today.