When BBC2 originally aired true crime mini-series The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story earlier in the year, I was pretty disinterested. While not having been an avid devotee of the OJ story at the time, it was impossible not to be aware of it back in 1994 and 1995 because of the global saturation coverage. I knew the main facts, features and personalities of the case, and even two decades later was surprised to find just how much I remembered about it all. With a lot else on my plate at the time I decided that I simply had no interest in raking over old ground again.
As the series went on, I became aware of some interesting reviews and feedback going on. By the time the final episodes aired I was ruing having possibly been too hasty and not giving this a chance. And then quite by surprise I was given a second opportunity, as BBC2 decided on a quick rerun of the entire series and was stripping them through a late weeknight spot with several episodes a week. Clearly this was meant to be.
Sure enough, the first episode showed just how a high-quality drama recreation can take well-known, well-established facts and breath new life and fresh understanding into them. I’d heard in countless news programmes about the events on the night of June 12 1994 when Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson was found dead with her throat slashed outside her home, along with local waiter Ronald Goldman who had apparently tried to defend her from her assailant; however seeing the events meticulously reinterpreted in a slow, calm start to the ten-part The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story really brought home those early basic facts of the case before the media storm engulfed it. What came over most strongly was why it was initially so clear to everyone concerned that this would be a slam-dunk case for murder against OJ. There was blood in Simpson’s car and a trail of more blood leading to his property, where a bloody glove was found matching another already discovered at the crime scene. It’s only with the clarity of hindsight that the well-informed viewer appreciates the identity of the officer who single-handedly made the big discoveries, or how the eyewitness accounts of OJ’s movements aren’t as solid and reliable as they were initially thought.
The second episode is dedicated to the extraordinary white Bronco car chase, in which Simpson flees imminent arrest and is pursued – at a sedate pace – by a fleet of police cars, with officers stopped from approaching the car by reports that a suicidal OJ was inside holding a gun to his head. It’s the kind of event that is so far-fetched that you could never write it in fiction: even knowing that this actually happened in real life leaves you shaking your head with utter disbelief.
The third episode sees OJ’s lawyer Robert Shapiro (played in heavy make-up by John Travolta, who looks like he’s wearing a prosthetic face and has a head almost twice the size of anyone else in the cast) starting to organise Simpson’s defence by assembling a high-paid ‘dream team’ of lawyers that include Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), F Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) and of course the legendary civil rights specialist Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B Vance.) Between them they decide on a strategy of blaming the LAPD by spinning it as a case of institutional racism, and they decide to throw as much noise and obfuscation as possible including bringing in DNA specialist Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow) whose role is to challenge every last detail of the way the police forensic investigation was conducted, scrutiny to a degree never before undertaken in a US courtroom, with a view to clouding all of the prosecution’s physical evidence in the eyes of the jury.
It’s at this point that the lead prosecutor Marcia Clark (excellently played by Sarah Paulson) begins to realise that not only is this case no slam-dunk, but that it might have terminal failings – especially after junior prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K Brown) points out that public sympathy, at least in the black community, remains largely with Simpson.
Most of this is set-up for what’s to follow: the show needs to introduce a large cast of characters clearly and effectively to put them in play for later events, and it does so rather well – or certainly it did for me, but then I knew most of the main players from contemporary news coverage. Still to be introduced is Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, one of the most familiar faces of the entire trial.
In the early episodes, with everyone reacting to events and jockeying for position driven by a mix of political and personal agendas, it’s hard to find anyone truly sympathetic. Surprisingly it’s David Schwimmer as OJ’s best friend Robert Kardashian who is the emotional heart and soul of this part of the story, the only one who is transparently honest and decent. And yes, he’s from that Kardashian family – I had no idea before this that the clan’s original time in the spotlight of fame stemmed from their association with OJ. The series has a little bit too much meta-fun with this aspect, with scenes in which no one knows who Kardashian is and fail to get his name right, and then a memorable family meal where he sincerely tells his infant brood that the most important thing in life was to be a good person and not to get sucked in by empty fame and celebrity. Whoops.
Schwimmer and indeed everyone in the cast is great. Billy Magnussen has one of the harder parts to play in the role of OJ’s house guest Kato Kaelin, who even when on the stand in the real trial was just an unbelievable lampoon of a vapid surf dude. Magnussen ends up looking like a really bad actor in the show simply because he’s giving a flawless spot-on impersonation of Kaelin.
The only actor who feels slightly mis-cast in all this is Cuba Gooding Jr. as OJ himself. There’s nothing to fault in Gooding’s performance – he’s ripping out his heart out in the role, in a way that almost makes you feel sorry for OJ – or equally could make you think that this is OJ’s greatest acting performance. The show doesn’t come down prematurely on either side in the first episodes. Unfortunately the problem with Gooding is that he doesn’t feel like a good physical match for OJ who towered serenely over the events of the courtroom like an impassive god descended from Olympus. In the early episodes Gooding’s OK feels small and crushed and oddly insignificant, but that might be the structure of the mini-series – maybe he’ll be able to assert the other side of things when we get to the actual trial scenes.
Overall though it’s been an absorbing first three episodes of The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Even though it faithfully documents the media storm that engulfed the case right from day one, the mini-series is a calm slow-burn, meticulously and methodically documenting the known facts as catalogued in Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 bestselling book The Run of His Life: The People v OJ Simpson. There’s a quiet, atmospherically pulsing score by Mac Quayle and subdued direction from directors Anthony Hemingway and Ryan Murphy (also the show’s executive producer, who has been behind Nip/Tuck, Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens.) While the early 1990s period detail is observed to a fault in terms of fashions, hairstyles, phone, cars and televisions in appropriately boxy 4:3 proportions and on-screen cameos from the likes of Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw, it’s never made a such a central element that it becomes distracting. The template seems to be David Fincher’s Zodiac, and that’s a very strong exemplar to work from.
Kardashians aside, I can’t say that I’ve learned an awful lot of new information from the mini-series. What is has done is put it all into order and context and filled in some of the behind-the-scenes blanks what we could only previously intuit and imagine, and the overall effect has been really rather fascinating and quietly compelling. Being able to watch the episodes on sequential nights rather than in weekly dispatches has also made it more immersive. On the whole I’m certainly very pleased to have been given a second chance to watch this mini-series – and actually even happier that I waited for the rerun to properly appreciate it.
Rating: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
The People vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story is showing on BBC2 on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights at 11.15pm. Once shown, episodes are available on BBC iPlayer. The DVD is released in the UK on September 5, 2016.