THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN
Courtesy of FX

Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve watched episode two of “People v. O.J. Simpson,” titled “The Run of His Life.”

Two moments from the O.J. Simpson saga stand out for those who remember it: the verdict and the Bronco chase. It’s been said that while the Bronco chase brought us together as a country, the verdict divided us.

Yet for a moment so seared into our collective consciousness, the episode — as directed by Ryan Murphy — effectively manages to find drama and suspense as it careens towards its inevitable conclusion.

The hour opens with Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) praying for his friend and now murder suspect, O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) — who’s MIA in a Bronco being driven by A.C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner). He left behind a suicide note, and Kardashian’s heartbroken, believing his friend to have done the unthinkable. As the first few hours pass without any word, he assumes the worst — and even mistakenly tells Simpson’s family he’s dead.

As with the premiere, we get to experience the day as it takes its (literal) twists and turns through the lens of all of the key players. While Cowlings drives a gun-toting, ever more desperate O.J. slowly down the 405 with a trail of police cars in tow, Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is more concerned with his own image than that of his client. He stages an absurd press conference to announce that he’s as “shocked as anyone” by this turn of events.

Stuck helplessly on the sidelines, Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) can only fume and express her outrage at the white-glove treatment of stars by the LAPD. “God forbid a celebrity should do a perp walk,” she complains. The look on her face throughout the episode says it all. D.A. Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) is equally aggravated — but because his career is evaporating before his eyes: “Christ, I thought I was going to run for mayor.”

Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), still just an onlooker, banters with his family and neighbors about Simpson’s innocence or guilt. “I don’t know what you guys are cheering for,” he says. “O.J. never gave back. Once he made his money he split and never came back. He became white.” Counters his neighbor: “Well, he’s got the cops chasing him. He’s black now.”

And then there’s Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), who, as a TV talking head, is already making an argument about the bias of the LAPD. “Time after time, the police shoot first and offer sloppy apologies afterwards,” he says. And he’s not a fan of Shapiro’s egocentric style, shaking his head at that headline-making press conference. “When you take these jobs you have only one role; you are in service to your client,” he tells his colleagues. “Never betray that individual.” Signs of tension to come, perhaps?

The public, too, gets a voice — after all, they play just as much of a role in the outcome. We see them cheering for Simpson — not because they believe he’s innocent per se, but because they don’t trust the cops.

Murphy seamlessly weaves in real news footage from the time, lending authenticity to what was an unprecedented narrative — Tom Brokaw, Bob Costas, Peter Jennings weigh in on the initial hunt for Simpson; the complete shutdown of the 405; his calls to the police threatening to commit suicide (those enormous car phones!). Even more unprecedented: TV stations switched from the NBA finals to the car chase — “put it in the box!” screams a news exec — as people sat glued to their sets. So much so, in fact, that pizza delivery places evidently ran out of cheese as viewers refused to leave their homes — an odd but humorous detail.

Perhaps the most debated moment will be the appearance of the Kardashian children. At that press conference, Shapiro turns the mike over to a then-unknown Kardashian to read O.J.’s note, and reporters ask him to spell his name. Cut to the kids back at home, spelling it out and chanting it sing-song. (They’d already made a cameo in the premiere, running around at Nicole Brown’s funeral.)

At the recent TV Critics Assn. press tour, executive producer Scott Alexander, who wrote the script along with Larry Karaszewski, defended the moment, saying, “They were sort of emblematic of the beginning of this era, where someone like Kato Kaelin or Faye Resnick would became famous, and no one was really sure why they were famous.”

Murphy added that there are over 400 scenes in the series, and just four or five that included the Kardashian kids: “So I think that gives you sort of a grasp on how important we felt they were to the story,” he said.

Indeed, the Kardashians would still make a name for themselves if not for this case — oh, that sex tape — but it was their father who first introduced them. It’s certainly a statement on the nature of celebrity. Can you imagine any reporter asking them to spell their name today?

Perhaps one of the most eerie moments comes far earlier in the episode. Crowds have gathered at Nicole Brown’s grave to lay flowers and candles. The camera pulls back to reveal paparazzi shooting the mourners, a statement in and of itself. And then the camera pulls back yet further, to reveal the white Bronco pulling up — then silently driving away.

In his later calls to police from the backseat, Simpson says, “I gotta be with Nicole. That’s all I’m trying to do. I tried to do it at her grave.”

He’s on an emotional roller coaster — yelling, crying, apologizing to the police for creating this mess. In the end, it falls to the only person who perhaps has O.J.’s best interests at heart to resolve the situation: Kardashian. He negotiates a peaceful surrender, amid the buzzing swarm of SWAT teams and TV news helicopters. Ever-present cameras are a character in their own right. We’re constantly looking at them, through them.

After a final call to his mother — and a glass of orange juice — Simpson’s finally in police custody.

***

A few notes:

• The script is full of great one-liners. “Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?” cracks Shapiro, as he eyes the missive Simpson left behind. And then there’s Bill Hodgman, in response to O.J.’s claim that he felt like a battered husband: “Well, you know, he cut his hand while he was killing her.”

• Murphy takes pains to ask the questions we are — and were — all thinking: Why didn’t they shoot out the tires? Well, it was on live TV, and everyone was watching. “I’m not shooting O.J. Simpson unless someone authorizes it,” says a cop. Why was there another Bronco? Wasn’t O.J.’s in police custody, given the blood stains? Turns out A.C. worshipped O.J. so much he bought an  identical one.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.

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