The key to American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’s success is explained at the very beginning of its seventh episode. In the middle of yet another Johnnie Cochran sermon, attorney and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz equates the courtroom aspect of law to the art of storytelling, stressing the importance of providing a narrative. “Look at what the culture is becoming,” he says. “The media—people—they want narrative too, but they want it to be entertainment.”
Absurdity has a distinct allure: an inviting glow that radiates through the filth, and The People v. O.J. Simpson, like the actual Simpson trial, is abundant with ridiculousness. The grisly double-murder that sparked the chain of events, the notoriety of the parties involved, and the fact that CourtTV fed the sensationalism by sharing the spectacle with the masses, created the Trial of the Century, the purest form of ludicrous entertainment anyone had ever seen. By walking in stride with history (for the most part), The People v. O.J. Simpson has captivated the public once again by combing through a story everyone already knows the ending to. Mixing the proper doses of detail and excess, it's made entertainment a living, breathing entity, and become the year’s best show in the process.
“If there’s going to be a media circus, you better well be the ringmaster.” In a series laden with ridiculous people saying ridiculous things, Dershowitz’s insight has deadshot accuracy. As with Simpson’s elite team of defense attorneys, experts are required to oversee the absurd. The People v. O.J. Simpson was developed by screenwriting partners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who are well-versed in material that captures the right amount of unsavory. Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt especially, and Man on the Moon are told in a slightly bizarre fashion with a degree of removed acceptance. Matching that aptitude is another pair of frequent collaborators who have a knack for the twisted: fellow executive producers Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. Murphy and Falchuk’s mutual fascination with the ugly-yet-engaging dates back to Nip/Tuck, and, aside from Glee—which is its own brand of disturbing—they’re best known for American Crime Story’s more eccentric older sibling, American Horror Story.
But where Murphy and Falchuk’s commitment to the outlandish often leads them off the deep end (that hard left has always inhibited American Horror Story), The People v. O.J. Simpson has built-in boundaries. Save for some deviation, it has to adhere to history’s template. Anthologized extravagance is the show’s selling point, but the specifics are what hook the audience.
Spoilers are irrelevant to The People v. O.J. Simpson because the plot can be researched. Details, however, are invaluable: they add the context that Google can’t always provide. The legal process is slow and tedious, a procedure that the Simpson trial made attractive due to the height of the stakes and facts-as-tabloid fodder. The People v. O.J. Simpson does the same by exploring the in-betweens and aftermath of the case. Trials are often reduced to headlines and news items, with the main figures only existing to outsiders when their actions are reported on in some capacity. The People v. O.J. Simpson is microscopic; a reminder that this happened to real people, and that it impacted the lives of everyone who was dragged into its vortex.
Trials sometimes create the illusion that flaw rests with the defendant. The People v. O.J. Simpson strengthens its characters, and itself, by illustrating how humans are imperfect by nature. The defense and prosecution operate like sports teams, and The People v. O.J. Simpson deftly unveils their internal drama. Mirroring the proverbial dick-measuring contest between Cochran and Robert Shapiro is the tension (sexual and professional) between Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden. And just as Simpson was on trial, the sparring attorneys were subject to public judgment, and their privacy was shredded in similar fashion. In addition to death threats, Cochran had to deal with his ex-wife and mistress going public with buried details about his personal life. Clark, subject to rampant sexism and scrutinized down to her hairstyle, was dealing with her own divorce at the time. Even Darden is painted as a traitor to his race for prosecuting a prominent black man, despite the fact that O.J. Simpson often insisted he wasn't black—he was “O.J.”
Naturally, The People v. O.J. Simpson goes behind the scenes of its namesake’s reality. In 1995, he was largely seen amidst his lawyers, Armani-suited to perfection. What the public didn’t see was him in the outfit he wore the most often during that period: his county blues. The show doesn’t shy away from the fact that he was a prisoner when he wasn’t in the courtroom, but it’s explicit in its comparison of jurors to prisoners both in and out of it. Episode eight, “A Jury in Jail,” follows their sequestered lives, painting them as captives of the process. They bicker over watching Martin or Seinfeld: brilliant writing on two levels, because it positions preference as racial tension in nodding to Fox and NBC’s Thursday night primetime war during the ‘90s. When the strain of it all becomes too much, they revolt by entering the courtroom clad in all black to the sound of “Fight the Power.” Like the choice of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust” as jurors are dismissed and Above the Law’s “Black Superman” as Cochran’s theme music, it’s poignant without the montage-ready self-importance of, say, The Newsroom. All of this amounts to a unique self-awareness, but the performances are what push The People v. O.J. Simpson above and beyond.
Ironically, O.J. Simpson is among the least interesting characters in a series bearing his name. The cast, as a whole, does an excellent job (Nathan Lane’s smarm as F. Lee Bailey is perfect, as is John Travolta, who brings insecure pretension to Shapiro’s every action), but a few in particular shine brightest. Sterling K. Brown’s Darden serves as the show’s moral anchor. Brown illuminates Darden’s uprightness, his desire to see the law work as it should, and his impotence in contrast to Cochran’s charisma. His suits aren’t as nice, nor are his glasses or shoes; they both know it, and this emphasizes what separates them. The scene where Courtney B. Vance, as Cochran, looks down at Brown’s Darden and sneers “N****a, please” just loud enough for only him to hear is arguably the best television moment of 2016 thus far.
From flair to cadence, Vance cloaks himself in the late Cochran, highlighting the svengali charm and will to win at all costs that were ultimately responsible for Simpson’s acquittal. But Cochran had a match during the trial, and Vance damn well has one in this series. Sarah Paulson, American Horror Story pillar, takes Clark from frumpy prosecutor to heroine and unlikely star, admittedly seeking justice as vengeance. Early on, she cops to feeling overmatched; by series’ end, she’s teflon. Paulson is the reason.
There’s a scene where Clark captivates a bar-full of Darden’s friends, all black men, by explaining the preposterousness of the “O.J. was framed by the racist LAPD” theory using shot glasses. She’s playful with her rigorous logic, and Paulson channels the same panache that Vance brings to Cochran. Steel sharpens steel, so Clark and Cochran drawing the best out of each other means Paulson and Vance had to do the same. The series reaps the benefits, as do the viewers.
The People v. O.J. Simpson has accomplished the impressive: making people reinvest in something that’s been discussed ad nauseam for over 20 years. It's a feat that re-airings of trial footage can’t accomplish because the entertainment factor simply doesn’t compare. But The People v. O.J. Simpson isn’t just sexy BTS footage: it reaches into the shadows and drags salient points into the light. It zeroes in on what made this trial one of the most important cultural moments in the 20th century—the confluence of celebrity, the legal system, gender, and race.
These are the occasionally sordid annotations to the trial of the century. And just like in 1995, it amounts to the best thing on TV.