Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode three of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” titled “The Dream Team.”
Now everybody knows their name — well, sort of. The episode opens with Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) taking his brood to dinner at Chin Chin on Father’s Day. The restaurant is mobbed, but no worries: “You’re Richard Cordovian, the O.J. guy,” gushes the hostess. “You can have whatever table you want.”
The kids are thrilled they don’t have to wait, but Papa Kardashian’s got a lesson to impart about the meaning of fame: “In this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous. Fame is fleeting. It’s hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart.”
Beyond the obvious implications for the future Kardashians (wink wink), that message threads throughout this hour, as both prosecution and defense build their cases in preparation for the trial that lies ahead. What begins as a slam dunk for the prosecution slips helplessly through their fingers; meanwhile, the defense’s case, which seemed unwinnable, shows signs of hope.
It’s a testament to the creative team — this hour was directed by Anthony Hemingway and written by D.V. DeVincentis — that the series maintains drama despite the inevitability. Credit the performances, to be sure, as well as the ways we experience the steady drip-drop of news through our characters’ eyes — while making breakfast, stopping by a newsstand, glancing up at a TV set.
Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) couldn’t be more confident as she lays out the charges at a press conference. “With this kind of evidence and a run for the border, he practically did my job for me,” she gloats to colleagues, who greet her with high-fives. Sure, they briefly debate holding the trial in Santa Monica, closer to where the crime actually happened, but D.A. Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) dismisses it over the “optics” of the possibility of an all-white jury. “Doesn’t Simpson deserve a jury of his peers? You know, rich middle-aged white men?” cracks Clark.
Meanwhile, things aren’t going well across town. Tabloids litter Robert Shapiro’s (John Travolta) desk, as he realizes he can’t handle this case alone, and starts assembling what Clark dubs “the most famous collection of expensive lawyers in the world trying to buy O.J. out of trouble.” His first “dream team” recruit: F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), who arrives with legal advice and a suitcase full of crackling one-liners: “You’re sure up the creek in high-grade manure.” His solution for getting talking head Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler) off CNN? “Hire him.” He in turn brings in Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow), the DNA expert whose strategy is keeping the blood out of court entirely. Cue Bailey: “I never thought I’d say this, but I like the nerd science guy.”
Yet hubris prevails over at the D.A.’s office: They dismiss the “dream team,” knocking each down one by one. “When’s the last time Lee Bailey won more than a drinking game?” sniffs Clark. Darden (Sterling K. Brown), who’s been recruited from the special investigators office (where he’s been investigating cops) to prosecute Al Cowling for aiding and abetting, tries to give her a reality check: “A lot of black people think O.J. didn’t do it.” She’s shocked.
O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), too, needs a reality check: He’s sitting in jail wondering why his golf buddies aren’t visiting him. Shapiro tries to convince him they need to hire Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), but he won’t have it. He sees through their strategy: “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” he thunders.
Meanwhile, Cochran’s sitting on the sidelines, and he’s not happy about it. Though he puffs with pride at being dubbed NBC’s “senior O.J. analyst,” his wife knows better. And a prank call to his office from a fake O.J. Simpson trying to hire him reveals that he really wants in. Badly.
But neither prosecution nor defense were prepared for the media onslaught, which essentially tried the case in the press. Eyewitness sold their stories. Nicole Brown Simpson’s 911 tapes somehow got released. And then there was that infamous Time magazine cover which featured Simpson’s mug shot — far darker than the original, triggering a firestorm of accusations of racism. (Time’s editor apologized at the time, saying “no racial implication was intended, by Time or by the artist.”) In the episode, editors are shown discussing how to present the mug shot: “We need to jazz it up. We need something dramatic.” It lands at the newsstand with a literal thud: “They made him blacker.”
But then a bit of investigative luck turned the tide for the dream team — and Shapiro shrewdly used the media to change the conversation about the case. Their investigator remembered an unfortunate encounter with Mark Fuhrman, and with a little digging, turned up his track record of suing the city. “Are you saying that the homicide detective who discovered all the evidence hates black people?” says an incredulous Shapiro. When a New Yorker reporter arrives at his office, Shapiro hands him the story of a lifetime: their case strategy, the systematic railroading of O.J. Simpson by a racist LAPD. Lane gets yet another a scenery-chewing speech, and he delivers: “I hear a sound. The sound of metal orbs clanging against one another. Oh my god, it’s coming from your pants, Bob. Balls. Big brass balls. God love you, we are back in this thing.”
Clark finally realizes what she’s up against: “We have to stop looking at his case as a slam dunk. This article is a declaration of war.”
Simpson is finally convinced to add one more name to his dream team: This time the phone call is for real. Though Shapiro is quick to assert to Cochran “I will remain lead counsel,” it’s clear that’s going to be a point of contention, though Cochran wisely bites his tongue. But he doesn’t hold back when he meets with his client: “We get one black juror, just one, and I’ll give you a hung jury. When I give you a hung jury, you are going home.”
Score one for the dream team.
“The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on FX.