‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ tells you everything you need to know about the 21st century

By Nate Taskin

Official American Crime Story Facebook Page)
(Official American Crime Story Facebook Page)

Although it takes place in the 1990s, I can think of no other show that informs us better on our modern times than “The People v. O.J. Simpson.”

In this first season of “American Crime Story,” a new anthology true crime series, showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (under the guidance of executive producer Ryan Murphy) have crafted a show that acts as both a super engaging piece of pulp, as well as a fascinating examination of the overlapping fields of racism, misogyny, class, the legal system, police misconduct, celebrity status and what the truth means in a new age of information.

Those born before 1994 or 1995 won’t need an explanation for the plot of this show. The nuclear fallout from the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman was astronomic, and at the center of it all was the accused: beloved football player O.J. Simpson. From the infamous Ford Bronco chase to lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran’s quip-tastic closing arguments, the non-stop media coverage of this trial pretty much paved the way for reality TV.

The parallels between the events that surround the case and our racial climate right now is not always subtle, though, given the subject matter, abrasiveness in place of subtlety may not necessarily be a negative observation.

After all, when the first images of the show come from footage of Rodney King’s barbaric beating courtesy of the Los Angeles Police Department and the riot that resulted from the lack of a guilty verdict for the indicted officers, it’s clear that the creators aim to invoke comparisons between Los Angeles and Ferguson, Rodney King and Michael Brown. The names and locations may be different, yet it’s the same tale of institutional evil told over and over again.

If that matter alone sounds complicated, then imagine how the presence of Orenthal James Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and what he represents throws a wrench into how we evaluate these events. Though it walks on a threadbare tightrope, the show manages to find a happy medium with all the factors that inform the so-called “trial of the century.”

Given his violent, abusive history with his ex-wife, along with the DNA match of one in a million, the evidence never flattered Simpson (though, for legal reasons, the show never states that he committed the crime).

At the same time, the defense paints a clear portrait of the racist mindset inherent toward procedural institutions, made abundantly clear by the vileness spewed by Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale), the Nazi memorabilia-owning lead detective in the criminal investigation. Essentially, the show makes a concise argument designed to resolve any cognitive dissonance one may experience from this whole affair.

One can believe that Simpson murdered his wife (poor Ronald Goldman always gets left out of this conversation) and also believe that biased cops framed key pieces of evidence in order to justify an arrest. Given Simpson’s massive wealth, even in spite of his race, he hardly fits the portrait of an average victim of the prison-industrial complex. (Would he even have had a chance if he wasn’t rich?) There does not have to be a disconnect between these two beliefs.

What makes this show wonderful is that it acknowledges the lack of easy solutions that stem from interconnected fields of injustice: race, class, gender or otherwise. America is built on lies, contradictions and overlapping layers of identity. It is the duty of these figures to pick up the pieces of this mess and, in the name of justice, try to make sense of it even if that endeavor proves futile.

As far the acting performances in a miniseries go, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” could match “Angels in America” blow for blow. Some standouts include Sarah Paulson, who knocks it out of the park as Prosecutor Marcia Clark. Paulson conveys that sense of exhaustion that comes with being a woman in a male-dominated field combined with an unwavering refusal to compromise her morals.

Practically everyone has their time to shine, including Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden and even David Schwimmer of all people as Robert Kardashian. (Though it takes someone stronger than I to resist the urge to call him “Ross Kardashian.”)

Of all the many valuable players, the real MVP of the season is Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. We see a man tailor-made to be a media darling, defined by his charisma and driven by a desire to right the wrongs endemic to the American criminal justice system.

As a Ryan Murphy-hater who absolutely cannot stand “Glee” or “American Horror Story,” I’m shocked at how well his aesthetic works here. His sense of offbeat theatricality, which never gelled with his previous work, fits this material like hand in glove. And of course, you should know what happens when the glove doesn’t fit.

Nate Taskin can be reached at [email protected]