Blending true crime within the anthology framework, season one of American Crime Story is riveting. It’s the best show of 2016 so far, with standout performances and a tight script throughout its ten solid episodes. Focusing on such a well-known media event as the O.J. Simpson trial allows Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski to throw creative curveballs into a story in which we already know the outcome. The result is a staggering series that hits modern issues of race, sexism, and the American legal system.
We all know the story of the O.J. murders, so American Crime Story doesn’t waste time filling you in. The first two episodes, as thrilling as they are, serve to introduce you to the key players in what became the trial of the century. O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), acclaimed football hall of famer is accused of murdering his ex Nicole and her boyfriend Ronald. Family friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and litigator Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) step up to the plate to defend him, while Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) prosecutes Simpson on two counts of murder. We see the facts of the case, but there is so much underneath that is waiting to explode as the season progresses.
Key to these explosive moments are the performances, standouts being Paulson but also Courtney Vance as Johnnie Cochran, who takes over as defense lawyer on the “dream team.” Vance is simply phenomenal, and he brings Cochran to life as a villain but also one within reason, never making him outlandish. I thought many times throughout the trial if Cochran actually believed O.J. was innocent, but that’s beside the point. He had a job, which was to convince the jury and the public that O.J. did not commit the crimes, and he damn well did it. The way he speaks to the jury, with his over-dramatic and flagrant ego, is less about convincing them of O.J’s innocence, and more about creating a discussion about race relations and police brutality.
As the trial gets more and more complex, witnesses include ex-cop Mark Fuhrman, who reportedly used the n-word in recordings, sparking the prosecution to turn the jury against the LAPD in general. Another pivotal scene involves Simpson placing the iconic black glove onto his hand to see if it fits. Another involves the prosecution and defense cherry-picking their jurors to stack the deck. All of these scenes serve a larger purpose, and are directed and acted with precision.
A standout episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” turns the tables and focuses primarily on Marcia Clark, who was probably affected the most by the trial overall. Her evidence is sound, but public opinion toward her is not. As she walks in the courtroom with a fresh haircut following intense media scrutiny against her gender and allegations from her ex-husband, Paulson turns Clark into more than just a hard-ass prosecutor going through a divorce. She makes her a statement for women in the workplace everywhere, as the trial consumes her life and her family. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and Paulson nails the key moments whether she’s drilling Simpson on the stand or flirting with fellow attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling Brown).
There’s so much to talk about around American Crime Story. I glossed over Cuba Gooding Jr’s performance, as surprisingly he’s not the true star of the show, but he handles Simpson brilliantly, and it’s a career comeback of sorts. While Schwimmer and Travolta are difficult to remove from their most famous roles, they still handle the dialogue that can get a bit over-the-top and Ryan Murphy-esque at times. Production-wise, everything nails it, from the period music selection to the direction inside and outside the courtroom, it’s a marvel. I’m highly anticipating season two, which reportedly will focus on Hurricane Katrina, as American Crime Story expertly weaves a web out of historical events that shocked the nation.