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.
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