“It’s a tasty Proustian cronut that makes you remember the events of not only 1995 but 2015.” – Emily Nussbaum, The New Yorker
That’s right, young (younger?) America! FX and Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story (not to be confused with Abc’s American Crime) has somehow managed to give us a chance (and for older America a second chance) to experience the O.J. Simpson Story (chase, trial, and media storm) through a dimer, but still national spotlight. Based on its subject matter this series could have easily yielded nothing more than an expensive and embarrassing Lifetime movie, but instead delivers a topical, thought provoking, and nuanced experience. Following the straightforward, expositive, storytelling techniques of more traditional network television (with a higher budget) Murphy and FX present a nostalgic, accessible series with loud themes and clear reflections on this period in American history.
Like myself, I assume when all of you saw the teasers for this series last fall we all had the similar feeling of “WTF!”After so many years of experiencing this story on the singular note of “He got away with it,” hearing about a big budget series being made feels tiresome, overdone, and like a waste of your time. I will admit, I only started watching the series after reading and listening to overwhelming positive reviews from critics. Contrary to the initial impressions, American Crime Story brings humanity to the spectacle of the case and, will not have audiences “re-trying O.J. Simpson” but, instead attempting to reevaluate the entire judicial system, media’s role, societal and political issues of the time, etc. The premier episode starts (before anything O.J. related at all) with real news coverage and footage from the 1992 L.A. Riots. The writers aren’t being coy about wanting us to engage the coming narrative with the tone the riots set in mind. It will not yield the standard, speculative TV discussion about what “could” happen but, instead a reflective what “should” have happened. A conversation close to the hearts and minds of Americans as police brutality and racial/ class inequality continue to be a issue for finding justice and unity in this country.
The “spectacle” nature of the series lends itself well to Ryan Murphy whose hit or miss career in spectacle speaks for itself: Glee, American Horror Story, New Normal, Scream Queens. Murphy’s campy nature tends to overly niche characters into their roles: the geek, the cheerleader, the conservative grandmother, etc. This at times becomes problematic because it leaves you with very one dimensional characters lacking in agency. However, this technique lends itself well to the O.J. narrative as it is one where the cast of characters are already overly niched players: Marcia Clark, Bob Shapiro, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, and O.J. Simpson and use them as anchors for the viewers. From their Murphy is able to create something essential to the tone and ideological discussions of the series, the factions of L.A./ O.J. trial; the strongest of which are Johnnie Cochran, O.J Simpson, and Marcia Clark.
All of the performances in the series do it justice, including David Schwimmer (Kardashian), but Sarah Paulson (Clark), Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J.), and Courtney B. Vance (Cochran) present an authenticity and energy that draws you in. Cuba Gooding’s O.J. is perfectly unbalanced and over the top, creating a character who is sympathetic and emanates the vibe of celebrity corruption. Paulson brings, to Marcia Clark, a fire and a passion that pierces through the apathy in her DA’s office; all she sees is a domestic abuse victim whom the system failed, Nicole Brown Simpson. Johnnie Cochran has yet to take a side in the literal case, but his presence in the series represents the racial wave that the show so far has slowly been building. Vance portrays Cochran as pragmatic, intelligent, and the only man who seems to have a understanding of how racial tension in L.A. will lead to this man’s acquittal. All three performers are/ will act as our guides through the series, and so far the performances warrant following.
American Crime Story tackling the O. J. story first was a huge challenge as a first project to take on, and so far it has surpassed all of my expectations. Using hindsight at its most entertaining, it puts America’s celebrity worshiping culture under examine and, peaks at a dark side of America’s not too distant past with issues still very present today. If this style of storytelling will lend itself well to the Hurricane Katrina planned season 2 of the series is to be determined. Similar to Fargo, True Detective, and Murphy’s own American Horror Story another season of this anthology could have a completely different direction and style. That being said, Hurricane Katrina seems like a similarly great place/ time to discuss the themes of: race, class, government, and media bottled in a national spectacle/ disaster.
With so much new content constantly being released on various streaming platforms, and even on television it is rarer to find a series that everyone in America watches and talks about (Game of Thrones being the major exception). FX creating American Crime Story brilliantly attempts to fill that void with a universal and nostalgic series, and is notably the network’s first participation in the current true-crime trend, which arose over the past two years (Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Serial). So go call your folks and tell them to start watching. Just say, “We will have more to talk about when I call.”
American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson New Episodes Tuesdays at 10:20pm on FX, and/ or available for streaming with FXNow on your computer or various phone/ tablet devices.