Saturday, February 27, 2016

90s Redux: The People v. O.J. Simpson

John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding, Jr. in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.

I still remember the day that the jury in the O.J. Simpson murder trial reached a verdict. I was eleven at the time, and my parents had judiciously shielded me from many of the more gruesome and scandalous elements of the story, but I still knew that it was a big deal, if for no other reason than that a famous football player was on trial. Besides, everyone else seemed fascinated by it; when the verdict came through, I was at recess, and one of the teachers had brought a radio outside so that he could listen to the proceedings. As soon as he relayed the news to me and my fellow fifth-graders, who were huddling close to hear, we took off in a swarm, shouting out the verdict to everyone else on the playground. None of us knew what that decision really meant, but it certainly felt like a momentous occasion.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the creators of FX’s new American Crime Story, presumably planned the first season of their anthology series with the hope that viewers would have a similarly personal recollection of the Simpson trial. In some ways, they’ve set up a tricky scenario for themselves: because the trial received such exhaustive coverage, there’s a lot of it that’s not only a matter of public record, but which also looms large in people’s memories of the mid-90s, restricting the amount of license that they and their cast can take with the story and characters. In that regard, it helps that they’ve chosen to adapt Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson. I’m unfamiliar with Toobin’s account of the trial, but I’m willing to bet that basing a series like this, which covers fairly recent events featuring many individuals who are still alive, on a pre-existing nonfiction book will help deflect any accusations of rewriting history unfairly.

Toobin’s book also probably played a role in helping to establish the even-handed, well-grounded tone of the series. The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story follows the familiar story of Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, his trial, and his ultimate exoneration, but it does so in a way that’s admirable for examining how the affair devolved into such a circus, instead of adopting the same exploitative tone that characterized so much of the proceedings. The opening scenes of the series place it in the context of the Rodney King trial and the subsequent riots that tore apart portions of Los Angeles, and throughout the episodes that have aired so far, Alexander and Karaszewski show how race and memories of police brutality remained a constant factor, first as an unspoken element of Simpson’s arrest and then as a crucial aspect of the defense’s strategy.

Unfortunately, when the show touches on the media-circus aspect of the trial, it sometimes stumbles. The most egregious example has to do with the Kardashian children; it makes sense that they’d appear in the series, since Simpson’s friend and lawyer Robert Kardashian plays a central role in the narrative, but at times it feels like we’re being beaten over the head with the idea that the Simpson trial spawned the vapid celebrity culture epitomized by his daughters and son. Connie Britton’s minor role as Faye Resnick, a member of Nicole Brown Simpson’s social circle who cashed in on the murder by quickly publishing an untrustworthy and salacious tell-all memoir about her, also doesn’t quite work for me. Britton’s a great actress, and she’s enjoyable in the role, but tonally it feels like she’s in another series, a sort of pitch-black high comedy that’s at odds with the more grounded feel of the rest of the show.

Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in American Crime Story.

By and large, the cast is strong, and there are a number of performances that I find absorbing. Perhaps the most surprising is David Schwimmer, who’s inextricably linked to his longtime role on the sitcom Friends. However, his portrayal of Robert Kardashian feels sensitive and nuanced; I complained about the show’s use of the Kardashian children earlier, but there’s a great opening scene in one episode where he takes them out to eat and finds that he’s become a celebrity because of his connection to the Simpson case. You can see Schwimmer register Kardashian’s dawning awareness of this fact, as well as his concern over his kids’ gleeful reaction to it, and it makes for a much subtler and more effective example of how the trial changed our culture (and the personal toll it took on the participants) than some of the show’s more heavy-handed moments.

It also helps that the courtroom antagonists in the trial, Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran, are played by Sarah Paulson and Courtney B Vance, respectively. Paulson’s Clark is tightly-wound and highly-competent, trying to hide her personal investment in the case under a professional demeanor. She also has an easy rapport with Sterling K. Brown, who plays Chris Darden, Clark’s co-counsel on the trial. Their scenes together work especially well, and the sympathetic way in which the show treats them seems aimed at countering the notion that they were bumblers who wound up in over their heads. The most recent example of this latter point of view came in last year’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which Clark and Darden (played by Tina Fey and Jerry Minor) inexplicably showed up in a pivotal trial late in that show’s first season. That comedy’s mocking portrayal of the two now seems more than a bit cruel in light of how Paulson, Brown, and the writers depict them in this show.

Vance, on the other hand, has a more outwardly flamboyant role, and he does a good job of balancing Cochran’s natural talent for showmanship with a more likeable personal side, as well as in moments of shrewd calculation. Vance has a lot to work with, and he makes the most of it – his motivational speech to Simpson (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) will probably make his Emmy-nomination reel, but it’s his quieter beats, where he’s weighing how to take charge of the case from John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro, that are his best.

Speaking of Travolta, his performance as Simpson’s initial lead attorney has received a lot of negative attention, and, at the risk of piling on, I have to agree. He adopts an odd, mannered persona for Shapiro that feels almost alien; I’m never quite sure what he’s going for, and seeing him next to Vance, or Nathan Lane as co-counsel F. Lee Bailey, doesn’t do him any favors. I’m also not entirely sure what Cuba Gooding, Jr. is doing as O.J. It’s not that it’s a bad performance, exactly, just that the script doesn’t seem sure what to make of Simpson. As Cuba plays him, he comes off as a cipher – he’s constantly off-balance and indecisive, as well as speaking in a high vocal register that emphasizes those qualities. The show lays out plenty of evidence to suggest that he is indeed guilty, but it’s hard to get a read on who he is, and why he does what he does. While I’m sounding ambiguous notes, I should mention that show’s direction: it’s mostly solid, but Anthony Hemingway, who’s directed the last two episodes, has a fondness for spinning the camera around a scene, a trick which gets distracting after you’ve seen it a few times.

The People v. O.J. Simpson is still unfolding, and it remains to be seen how some of the show’s strengths and flaws will resolve themselves in the long run. For now, the show’s writing and performances are generally strong enough to overcome a few initial problems. It might not be as all-pervading as the first time it aired, but for now I’m quite happy to have the O.J. Simpson back on television.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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