Nobody needs to apply spoiler warnings to “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.” Arresting from the get-go, the performances in this limited series are almost uniformly superb (with one glaring exception), and dealing with a true story imposes a level of discipline and restraint on producer Ryan Murphy and his collaborators that’s become a rarity in his other shows. Although “People v. O.J.” commits a few minor fumbles, almost everyone here has acquitted themselves honorably, in roles that, for the most part, fit them like a glove.
Adding context to the eventual not-guilty verdict, the series opens with the Rodney King beating and the civil unrest that followed. That distrust toward the police and justice system in the African-American community would ultimately become a vital part of the case, albeit one that prosecutors clearly underestimated in everything from their handling of jury selection to venue.
Of course, Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) didn’t exactly identify with the African-American community. Rich and privileged, he was almost certainly the most famous person ever accused of murder when his ex-wife Nicole and waiter Ronald Goldman were found brutally killed.
All of those 20-year-old events have been replicated in painstaking detail, from Simpson’s televised slow-motion Bronco chase to the LAPD investigators arriving on the scene. But what really makes “People v. O.J.” sizzle is the fly-on-the-wall treatment of the rival legal camps, including the squabbles within the so-called “Dream Team” that Simpson assembled to defend him.
That begins with Robert Shapiro, and without putting too harsh a point on it, John Travolta is simply awful in the role. Yes, Shapiro spoke in stiff, measured tones, but the actor’s overly mannered line readings turn the attorney into a buffoon, in sharp contrast to the more nuanced portrayals around him.
The other misstep, just to get the few beats of griping out of the way, involves Simpson pal Robert Kardashian. Although the part is nicely played by David Schwimmer, the producers indulge in sequences in which Kardashian lectures his daughters, long before their sex tape/reality-TV days, about the pitfalls of fame, which not only feels heavy-handed and somewhat pandering, but too cute by more than half. (Granted, it is sort of hilarious hearing him refer to O.J. as their “Uncle Juice.”)
Fortunately, everything else about the production more than compensates for those minor quirks, starting with Courtney B. Vance — in a role he was born to play, as Johnnie Cochran — and Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, the former eager to sink her teeth into the case, the latter dragged into it despite warnings not to get involved. In one of the more telling exchanges, when Darden suggests to a neighbor that Simpson has had little use for the black community during the Bronco ride, he’s told, “He’s got the cops chasing him. He’s black now.”
Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski penned the Murphy-directed premiere, derived from Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” and the writing throughout does an extremely savvy job of humanizing the participants with personal details, from Clark’s marital woes — and her hurt feelings at having her looks picked apart by commentators — to Cochran’s hunger to get involved. There are also illuminating touches and stranger-than-fiction moments, such as the defense team transforming Simpson’s bachelor estate to make it more appealing to the visiting jurors.
Beyond the marquee names, “People v. O.J.” is full of delicious smaller roles, such as Connie Britton as Nicole’s book-peddling friend Faye Resnick and Nathan Lane as a blustery F. Lee Bailey. Indeed, the producers have cast and adorned the show so impeccably, down to even smallish roles, as to make these encounters feel incredibly present.
Perhaps foremost, the 10-part project (six of which were previewed) captures the circus-like atmosphere that polluted the so-called “trial of the century,” from witnesses selling their stories, to more or less conducting the trial via Larry King’s talk show. Moreover, this series has the advantage of being able to wryly present someone like Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi) perceiving the assignment as a huge career opportunity, when the viewer knows he’s going to wind up a Jay Leno punchline.
Ratings-wise, this has the potential to be one of the bigger draws FX has scheduled in a while, and similar to its cousin “American Horror Story,” “American Crime Story” is designed to live on, documenting different tales in future cycles. Still, like some of the football star’s greatest gridiron moments, this is one of those perfectly timed runs that should be hard to replicate — or equal.