‘The People v. O.J. Simpson’ Recap: Building a Case for Murder

Sarah Paulson the People v OJ
Courtesy of FX

Spoiler alert: Do not read until you’ve watched episode one of “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” titled “From the Ashes of Tragedy.”

It seems almost silly to put a spoiler alert at the top of this recap: We all know how this story ends. But twenty years have passed since the verdict was read — and “The People v. O.J. Simpson” painstakingly rebuilds the case from the beginning, filling in details we may have forgotten, while also carefully charting backstories for all the players we thought we knew.

Most tellingly, the first episode — as directed by Ryan Murphy, who also executive produces the series — opens on footage of the L.A. riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. Newscasters intone: “It’s going to take years to recover from this.” Indeed.

Fast forward two years later, and a limo driver is waiting to take O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) to the airport. “Sorry I’m late,” says Simpson. “I overslept.”

Meanwhile over on Bundy Drive, a man walking his dog stumbles across the only eyewitness to the crime: a white Akita, who leads him to the bodies. Enter the police, led by detective Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale). Step by step, we follow the cops as they find the evidence we know by heart: the blood, the Bronco, the shoe prints, the glove, Kato Kaelin. (“I’m not an official person. I just live back here,” he says.) And then there’s that telling notification call to O.J. Simpson in Chicago: “He didn’t ask how she died,” says the dumbfounded detective.

Such lines are so damning — courtesy of the compelling script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“Big Eyes,” “The People vs. Larry Flynt) — but they’ve all been meticulously vetted and researched, via Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run for His Life.”

With the evidence against Simpson carefully laid out, we’re then introduced to the other major players, before their lives unraveled. Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is recently separated with two kids, armed for battle with her soon-to-be-ex. Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) is a clothes hound with a color-coordinated wardrobe (“Where’s my Hugo Boss? I’ve got nothing to wear!”) and a equally sharp instinct for the political, as he defends a single mother shot by the LAPD. Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown) is frustrated in his job, looking to Cochran as a mentor. And Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) is a bigshot Hollywood lawyer with a flair for the dramatic, as he entertains a table at Mr. Chow’s with his tales from the courtroom.

It’s almost hard to watch given what we know awaits them — it’s a slow-moving car wreck as the pieces slowly fall into place.

Take Clark’s strategy meeting with the rest of the district attorney’s office. She reels in shock at the crime scene photos, but the others can’t accept Simpson as a suspect: “I just can’t picture O.J. doing it”; “He’s the nicest guy.” It’s frighteningly clear what she’s going to be up against, but she can’t see it yet.

Clark gets increasingly frustrated as the evidence piles up, including his prior arrest for domestic abuse, the eight 911 calls. “The system failed her,” she says. “He got away with beating her, he’s not going to get away with killing her.” All together now: famous last words.

Meanwhile, Simpson’s not having it any easier. He’s getting more aggravated as pressure mounts on him, and he’s lashing out at everyone around him. He starts popping pills — and is clearly unhinged as he senses the walls closing in on him.

Though we’re often gutted by heartbreaking details — the Simpson kids asleep in their beds as the cops prowl through the house — Alexander and Karaszewski do pepper the hour with touches of humor. We’re allowed to laugh at Shapiro’s bombast, a welcome relief.

The exec producers have done their research — we’ll see this time and again throughout the series — and we learn that Simpson’s lawyers administered a polygraph, which he failed: “The worst you can do.” His good friend and soon-to-be lawyer, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) is stunned: “There’s no way he could have done it.”

But then the DNA report comes in — and he’s trapped. The long-delayed arrest warrant has been issued.

Yet Shapiro manages to finagle a few more celebrity-friendly shenanigans with the D.A.’s office, who somehow agree to let Simpson turn himself in with a few hours’ delay. A team of doctors and nurses are called in to examine him — and an overwrought Simpson writes a raft of goodbye letters, including a will, then threatens suicide, pointing a gun at his head.

“This is where my daughter sleeps,” pleads Kardashian. “Don’t kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom.”

By the time the cops finally roll up to the Encino hideaway, it’s too late. The Bronco’s gone.

“Oh my God,” says Clark prophetically. “We’re going to look like morons.”

Cue the footage of the Bronco famously speeding down the 405.

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

What did you think of the season premiere? Weigh in below.

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  1. This is very well done. The timelines of this situation are really accurate. They have brought a reality to an truly tragic miscarriage of the american criminal justice system.

  2. Linda Annucci says:

    It is very annoying the way John travolta talks. The real Robert Shapiro doesn’t talk that way.

  3. Virginia Soto says:

    Beautifully executed. All actors played their parts great. It kept my interest from start to finish. Cuba Gooding might not look like O.J., but he is very believable and doing a great job. I can’t wait til the next episode.

  4. S. A. Young says:

    Excuse me, sanman$, but have you forgotten that Cuba Gooding Jr won an Oscar for Jerry Maguire…in which he his character was…a football player? But that aside, we all know what OJ looks (looked) like. As Jean zwijsen remarked, it’s not necessary that the actor be a photocopy.

    • sanman$ says:

      Your problem is that your confusing Reel Life (as in movies) with Real Life. Playing a football player in Jerry Maguire doesn’t qualify Cuba Gooding to be a real football player.

      • S. A. Young says:

        I promise I was not confused. I was merely pointing out that he’d already played an athlete and since he doesn’t actually have to play football or even simulate it, he’s qualified to act in this series.

    • sanman$ says:

      Jerry Maguire is fiction not real life. Your confusing the two. I met Cuba Gooding at a 2nd ave. drug store a few years ago in NYC. And to be honest, physically Cuba doesn’t look like a NFL football player. Maybe he’d get hired to play on the Little People’s football team. Also just because someone like Harrison Ford played the President or Han Solo in Star Wars (Movie Reel life) doesn’t qualify him to do their jobs in Real life.

  5. Brock says:

    An excellent introduction into the story that rocked the nation in the mid 90s. Attention to detail is very impressive– right down to Nicole’s slowly melting bowl of Hagen Das ice cream, which helped to nail down a strong timeline to the murders. Excellent casting job! Paulson as Clark and Vance as Cocrhane are perfect!

  6. Jean zwijsen says:

    Brilliant! Even better than I expected it to be. I remember when it was live, but never knew the details I hear now. Cuba is perfect as OJ. He didn’t need to look exactly like him.

  7. sanman$ says:

    Facially Gooding doesn’t resemble or look like OJ. The only thing they have in common is the color of their skin. He would never in a million years get hired to play football. Give me a break! Maybe on the litle people show.

  8. Bill Holden says:

    It was pretty entertaining. The cast was impressive including Cuba Gooding. I could have done without the nauseating Kimmy, Khole, or even Kris K. references. Not relevant to the story. Yeah, we get it, OJ’s attorney is Papa K – but I could do without this overt pandering by bringing his ex-wife and children into the whole story line.

  9. imustseemovie.com says:

    Looks good

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