TV Discussion

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story – A Retrospective

There is a grounded fascination to be had with true crime stories.  Unlike the glamour, the ensemble team of specialised abilities or the procedural nature of scripted police shows, true crime takes the audience into a real, uncompromising and articulate world journey.  Shows like Making a Murderer, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst and Serial are examples of that thriving curiosity.  Whilst the format is different, American Crime Story is a natural fit.

Just like American Horror Story, American Crime Story takes the successful anthology model and applies it to the true crime trend by tackling arguably the biggest and most publicised murder case of the modern century – the O.J. Simpson trial, spanning from his arrest in 1994 to his not guilty verdict in 1995.

As modern contemporary dramas go, American Crime Story was not content at just being a faithful dramatisation of the events.  It was an examination, presenting a social commentary snapshot at one of the most turbulent times in America which sadly still resonates today.  This was a trial that reached an epic escalation point on race relations after years of a crumbling divide, continuous examples of injustice, heavy-handedness and mistrust.  This was a trial where the historic role of the police, the criminal justice system and their crime scene procedures were heavily scrutinised.  This was a trial where the cult of celebrity, money and power took on an obsessive life of its own.  This was a trial where it generated a seismic media interest where the news coverage became a twenty-four-hour news cycle and everyone had a story to tell, shaped by the desires of the audience and ratings.

You could easily be forgiven to think that this was some soap opera, reality TV show.  However, the show effectively and importantly blurred between the lines on what the public witnessed on TV and the events behind the cameras.  It was a re-education of the facts with context.  The trial essentially became an epicentre fuelled by the contributing factors mentioned above and the sad realisation on how the brutal murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were simply forgotten and overshadowed.  Based on the book ‘The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson’ by Jeffery Tobin, American Crime Story’s award-winning achievement presented multiple sides for a case that seemed straightforward and yet became a monstrous and uncontrollable storm that continuously buckled under the multiple tides of pressure.

While it couldn’t capture every single factoid of the case (something that Ezra Edelman’s Oscar winning documentary O.J.: Made in America does in extensive detail), what really sells the first season is the accurate portrayal of the real people involved.

Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), John Travolta (Robert Shapiro) and David Schwimmer (Robert Kardashian) not only nailed their engaging performances but can’t be viewed in the same way again.  Thanks to the hair and make-up, their uncanny resemblance to their real-life counterparts was spot on.  Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark), Courtney B. Vance (Johnny Cochran) and Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden) deliver tour-de-force performances.  During the ten-part episode run, their evolving characters highlighted the ethical and moral conflicts that the case brought up.  Their relationships crumbled under the strain and scrutiny where not everything went their way, tackling invasion of privacy, scandals, gossip, race and personal abuse.  Whether it was concerns about potential witnesses or re-dressing O.J.’s home for the jurors to align him more with the African-American community (despite O.J.’s famous quotation, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.”), their actions fed into the frenzy and vice versa.

As members of the prosecution and defence, it was about who could sustain a convincing argument of the events in question.  But in the particular case of Marcia Clark and Johnny Cochran, their dramatised involvement in the trial sparked a larger debate.  For Marcia it exposed a brutal and vicious personality contest with the media and the jurors in the brilliant standout episode, ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’.  For Johnny, not only was it about winning but it became a symbolic validation and recognition of the African-American struggle and the injustices suffered over the years within the criminal justice system.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is essential viewing.  The first season wasn’t solely just about O.J. Simpson but an expansion of the canvas on its cultural impact and a societal failure.  There are not many TV shows that can entertain on one level and still manage to find a gripping, cohesive balance in retelling a conflicting and highly emotional trial that tapped into every fabric of society.

With the second season exploring the assassination of Gianni Versace, the truth behind the story as depicted by American Crime Story will always be an insightful and revealing analysis of what really happened.

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