Only Patty Hearst’s epic flirtation with crime and radical politics in the 1970s came close to the bleeding-out headlines of the 1994 O.J. Simpson murder trial. From his Bronco ride to his subsequent “dream team” trial of the century, it filled the airwaves and print with rich and strange melodramatic swerves all the way to the bizarre verdict, which seemed inevitable and baffling at the same time. More than 20 years later, and the event still has viewers glued to their small screens — this time for the FX miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. What’s great about the 10-part show (which concluded Tuesday, April 5, after press time) is how strongly it grounds the events in human terms while still acknowledging the crazy politics, the media shit show, and the brash manipulations of big-stakes lawyers on parade.
Actually, the nobility of the law frequently surfaces. The People v. O.J. Simpson bursts with richly detailed performances, from both the prosecution and defense tables. Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark is the longest thrill ride — she’s twitchy, vulnerable, violently abusive (mostly to furniture and files), and then centered on proving a point. Her Oakland bar scene is riveting — despite it being invented by the writers. As Robert Kardashian, David Schwimmer helps us remember a man of integrity caught up in a bad friendship, before his urchins besmirched the family name. Sterling K. Brown’s Christopher Darden is a perfect foil for Clark. He’s convinced that tokenism got him on the prosecution team but participates nonetheless; his flaw is relying too much or not enough on hunches and intuition.
But the real star of the show is the script, sometimes painfully objective, other times damning. Each episode pushes the narrative forward yet focuses in on stunning particulars. For example, episode six (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”) was all about Marcia Clark the woman, from hairdo to career-versus-family ironies; episode eight (“A Jury in Jail”) concentrated on insane jury pressures; and in episode nine (“Manna from Heaven”), the reprehensible Mark Fuhrman tapes emerged. Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the show has the character-building heft of a great novel elucidating the weird fate of an American sports celebrity who was somehow guilty and framed at the same time.
One kind of suspense story deals with an outcome already known — A Man Escaped, for instance, or any Columbo episode. I’m writing this piece two days before The People v. O.J. Simpson’s final episode airs; this show is so good and I’m so sunk in its moments, I can’t wait to find out the verdict.