Let’s face it, there has always been an interest in true crime but thanks to podcasts like Serial and TV series like Netflix’s Making A Murderer a genre that has always had a dedicated following has suddenly been almost gentrified – re-packaged and re-presented to a new audience. The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story surfs the zeitgeist of all things true crime by dramatising one of the most infamous cases of the late 20th century. It’s an ambitious project indeed.
I have a slight problem with those aforementioned projects. Yes, they’re extremely well made and highly addictive, but they’re true stories that have been presented to us as dramas. At the end of each episode there are cliffhangers and other narrative devices present within each that give them almost a fictional quality. Which, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth – real people’s lives have been ruined, real people’s lives are still being rebuilt, punishment meted out and, lest we forget, real people’s lives have been taken. This presentation of ‘facts’ fulfils an almost unreliable narrator role in proceedings until we, the public, have formed the view that the convicted criminal was, in fact, innocent (it’s always a miscarriage of justice in these things), even though we have been given a view framed by the podcast or series makers’ own views.
In this black-and-white world, where views are formed thanks to an instantaneous Twitter-style process, this feels likes shaky stuff to me.
The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story takes things several steps further – it takes one of the highest profile cases of the 1990s, hires an all-star cast and re-tells the undoubtedly fascinating story of how one of the best known men in America was arrested for a crime of double murder.
Initially, I had questions. As lip-smacking as the prospect of seeing this drama unfold – and for those who remembered it, it was drama of the highest-profile order – I was uneasy: on what version of the facts would this version of the case be based?
It’s no coincidence that this anthology series’ showrunner is Ryan Murphy, the man in charge of American Horror Story – a schlocky, festishised horror story that ticks a lot of boxes but has little depth. He brings those ‘qualities’ to An American Crime Story, but perhaps knowing the high-profile nature of a project like this makes it more like a Greek tragedy – there’s the racial and sociopolitical context (America is still reeling after the LA riots), there’s a fallen hero whose character is ambiguous at best, there are power politics, there are egos… this story has it all.
And this is impressive – there’s a very real historical context into which this drama places the double murder of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman, which can only be achieved by the passing of time. America was on a knife-edge (no pun intended), with trust in the police at an all-time low and the racial divide (America’s Great Problem) never more chasm-like. The fact that a national hero – an African-American man – was suddenly the prime suspect in a double homicide could have propelled the country into an almost irretrievable nightmare. American Crime Story explores these issues; in fact this context was ever-present.
The first quarter of an hour was thrilling. Pure, rip-roaring procedural. From the moment Brown and Goldman’s body were found at her home, we followed the LAPD as they tried to determine what had actually happened, and subsequently found that there was enough evidence to arrest OJ Simpson. On the prosecuting team there was DA Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) and his team, led by Marcia Clark (a fantastic Sarah Paulson), a driven, chain-smoking prosecutor who was (rightly) sickened by Brown’s fatal wounds and was determined to bring in Simpson, who she and Garcetti were certain was a slam dunk for the case.
What happens next was pure Hollywood. The town’s best fixer and celebrity lawyer was brought in (Robert Shapiro) to manage the situation, OJ’s old friend Robert Kardashian (yes, father to the Kardashians) re-activated his legal license and joined the defence team and suddenly what looked like a bang-to-rights case was quickly disappearing into a mist of red tape, expert subterfuge and plenty of bending of the rules.
Another fun element to the whole thing was spotting who was playing who, and comparing the actors with the real people. Cuba Gooding Jr doesn’t bear much of a resemblence to OJ, but his manic, often bipolar-ish double personality portrayal was impressive, I’ve already mentioned Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, David Schwimmer played Robert Kardashian with sensitivity, while Courtney B. Vance was Johnnie Cochran. As good as this group was John Travolta will make all the headlines – his portrayal of the Teflon lawyer Robert Shapiro, who’s also a master at his work, was the hammiest thing you’ll ever seen. His portrayal has garnered plenty of criticism Stateside, and his performance will polarise you, too – some will enjoy it, some won’t. It’s pure pantomime.
A breathless first episode ended with OJ disappearing from his home under the noses of Shapiro and Kardashian. And we all know what happens next, which is the strength and weakness of this series so far.