The first season of American Crime Story is really a ten-part miniseries on the so-called Trial of the Century: The People v. O.J. Simpson. Unlike many people around the world, including tens of millions in the U.S., I didn’t pay much attention to the 1995 trial of O.J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend, Ron Goldman. Perhaps that’s one reason the show didn’t blow me away, the way it blew away a majority of TV critics. The People v. O.J. Simpson has received countless awards and overwhelming critical acclaim. Frankly, I can’t see it. For a TV show, and even for a TV miniseries, The People v. O.J. Simpson is very good. But, in my opinion, it’s far from great.
The People v. O.J. Simpson begins with the police arrival at the murder scene and goes on to show Simpson’s arrest, the preparations for his trial, and the trial itself. The story makes for fascinating television, especially when it highlights the racial implications of the trial, which are, in fact, a focal point of the show. I thought that aspect of the series was handled very well, with lots of good writing and dialogue in evidence. And there were a number of marvellous scenes in the courtroom (and outside of it). But, in the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson suffers from exactly the same major flaw as most miniseries: it’s far too long for what it offers.
In particular, I thought the second episode was abysmal and I wasn’t at all surprised to discover that millions of viewers stopped watching the show after the second episode. The entire episode is about a slow-moving interstate car chase, in which Simpson, fleeing his arrest, is sitting in the back of his white Ford Bronco with a gun to his own head, while dozens of police cars follow. Sure, this scene was watched live around the world and was major news, but the very fact that this was the case shows how warped our society’s obsession with celebrity is. This scene deserved maybe fifteen to twenty minutes. To draw it out for a whole episode was completely unnecessary and very boring. I could point to many other scenes in the eight-plus-hour show that were unnecessary. It’s a common flaw in miniseries, so it’s forgivable, but this example of poor writing alone prevents me from calling the show great.
Then there’s the acting. Leading the prosecution is Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson, who is certainly the best thing about the show and deserves all her awards for her phenomenal performance. Helping her is Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown, who is well-cast and does a good job. Simpson is played by Cuba Gooding Jr., whose acting was generally quite good in its own way. But Gooding Jr. doesn’t sound at all like Simpson and his whiny voice didn’t feel credible as a representation of Simpson. So, despite Gooding, Jr.’s abilities, I can’t help but think this was a serious casting mistake. But not as big a mistake as casting John Travolta as Bob Shapiro, one of the core members of Simpson’s defence team. Regardless of how close Travolta came to emulating Shapiro, his over-the-top acting made Shapiro look like a fool and made me cringe most of the time. Other members of the defence team fared much better, especially Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who took over the leadership of the defence. Vance was superb, second only to Paulson. Nathan Lane was also very good as F. Lee Bailey and David Schwimmer had his moments as Simpson’s lawyer and close friend, Robert Kardashian.
Other actors of note were Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, the L.A. D.A., who did fine, and Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, who was solid enough. At the end of the series, we are shown what people looked like side-by-side with the actors who played them. Clearly it was a priority to find lookalikes, because the resemblance is amazing. But rather than impressing me, this only served to explain the mistakes in casting.
I should point out that the cinematography was of the finest Cable TV standard. In the end, The People v. O.J. Simpson gets a solid ***+. My mug is up, but I had expected something tastier and more stimulating inside.