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In His High-Profile Return to TV, John Travolta Gets Noticed

Before it debuted, “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” received almost universal advance praise, but there’s one element of the gripping true-crime drama that divided critics: John Travolta’s performance.

Travolta plays Simpson defense attorney Robert Shapiro, and it’s easy to see why reviews have been mixed. Even critics who praise the actor’s take tend to note that as Shapiro, Travolta is often quite mannered, and some of his line readings are so colorful or eccentric that they end up being distracting. Whatever your position on Travolta’s work, you certainly can’t accuse the actor of failing to make bold choices.

My own opinion of Travolta’s Shapiro evolved as I watched the first six episodes of the FX series: I started in the realm of puzzled disbelief, arrived at amusement, and ultimately traveled to a place of sincere appreciation. You simply can’t take your eyes off Travolta, and that is a form of enchantment.

In a high-profile project, among cast members like Sterling K. Brown (Christopher Darden), Sarah Paulson (Marcia Clark) and Courtney B. Vance (Johnnie Cochran), all of whom do career-best work, it appears that Travolta made an understandable decision: Go big or go home. For this character, in this drama, it worked.

Travolta is not giving a big, idiosyncratic performance in a subtle chamber piece like “Rectify” or even “Mad Men.” “The People v. O.J.” is not a somber, quiet meditation on bittersweet themes or a moderately detached character drama. It’s an important, famous story full of colorful characters who did outrageous things and who often enjoyed being in the spotlight. Shapiro understood that, and so does the actor playing him.

Much of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is a meta-commentary on the crafting of believable narratives, and Shapiro ended up as a top L.A. attorney in part because he constructed a persona of professional competence built on his connections to various elites. He wasn’t, as a reality-show contestant might say, “here to make friends.” The Shapiro of the O.J. drama is a man who wants to help his client — as long as doing so will burnish his own reputation.

In an interview with Variety, Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote “The Run of His Life,” the book the series is based on, is succinct in his assessment of Travolta as Shapiro: “Johnnie (Cochran) was so much better a human being than Robert Shapiro, and that’s captured” in the FX series, Toobin says. “Travolta has the artistic integrity to be really unlikable as Shapiro.”

And if his performance as a charismatic, canny player helps set Travolta apart in his return to television after decades spent away from the medium, well, that can’t hurt his future career prospects, can it? Half the reason it’s hard to look away from the O.J. drama — then and now — is because the jostling among the lawyers is so complicated and compelling. Though the cast works as a well-oiled machine to bring the work of writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander to life, it’s a big ensemble, and no actor ever wants to get lost in the shuffle. Travolta’s operatic tendencies not only occupy the screen unapologetically and make his character memorable, they also make his co-stars’ subtler moments stand out all the more.

The point is, attention-getting performances can be enormously winning in the right context. It’s unlikely that anyone is watching “Downton Abbey’s” final season to see creator Julian Fellowes recycle the same limited array of plots again. Fans want to see Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess dominate a drawing room every time she issues a withering put-down. It’s one of the drama’s go-to scenarios, but that one’s always fun.

On Fox’s “The Grinder,” which, like “Downton Abbey” and FX’s O.J. drama, has a lot of fun with the vanities of oblivious elites, Rob Lowe plays a man who has a lot in common with Shapiro. Lowe’s puffed-up character, Dean, is an actor who quit a starring role in a hit legal procedural in order to live among the common people. But old habits die hard, and he can’t stop playing to cameras that aren’t there. Timothy Olyphant’s guest spots have been wonderful treats: In character as vain thespians, both actors deliver knowing and hilarious parodies of bad acting, and appear to be having a ball while doing so. The unsung but sneakily brilliant recent run of “The Grinder” proves that in comedy, as in drama, it’s possible to get a great deal of mileage from a tragic lack of self-awareness.

Dean’s attempts to whittle down his tremendous ego have been increasingly amusing, and Lowe’s purposely overwrought acting is undergirded by a cleverly inserted layer of real heart. Dean — like Johnnie Cochran or Robert Shapiro — may be congenitally theatrical, but that doesn’t mean he lacks a soul. These characters are not just juicy and diverting, they’re instructive as well. As played by Lowe and Travolta, they underlie the dangers of fame, and the programs they’re in sharply poke fun at the excesses of our celebrity-driven culture, where cameras warp everything — even when they’re not present.

These law-adjacent characters find ways to channel egotism into art, and faced with the craftiness the actors bring to their roles, all I can say is: I’ll allow it.

Variety’s coverage of “The People v. O.J. Simpson” is here, and a recent Talking TV podcast on the drama is here and on iTunes

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