The lawyer Marcia Clark, long a national object of derision for the perception she let the prosecution of O.J. Simpson slip away from her, found redemption through television. Sarah Paulson’s performance as Clark on Ryan Murphy’s FX limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” depicted Clark’s deep well of knowledge, and her humanity; the show at large made a majestic and powerfully built case that she’d been the victim of a toxic misogyny that was one of the few aspects of the Simpson circus that had previously gone underinvestigated. (That “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” had, only a year before the FX series, aired a lengthy and vicious depiction of an airheaded Clark, played by Tina Fey, came to seem like a vestige of the time before Clark got her reputation back.)
Why not double down? Clark is turning to television once again to restore her good name — this time in a project in which she, and not Murphy, is the creative guiding force. As executive producer and co-writer, Clark has been given, or has given herself, the opportunity to reframe her story. It’s disappointing, then, that such fertile ground for inquiry has resulted in such a feeble bid for revenge and little more. The sense granted by “The Fix,” a series in which a Los Angeles District Attorney not unlike Clark gets the opportunity to try the black superstar who evaded her grasp the first time around, is of a person with an axe to grind but not a case to make.
Robin Tunney plays Maya Travis, who, in 2010, was confident she’d nailed down movie star Sevvy Johnson (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) on a double murder charge. And little wonder — when we see her in flashback, she’s listening to a car radio dictating that though Johnson had enjoyed an “aggressive defense that painted [him] as a victim of racism and police misconduct,” she had provided “powerful evidence of Johnson’s guilt.”
Such telegraphing might not be quite so necessary on a show the viewer knows is based on one of the justice system’s most famously missed lay-ups ever. But it does provide a purpose, if inadvertent: In its first two episodes, “The Fix” transmits an outright contempt for the notion that there is bias against black defendants, and that such a thing might play a role in a segment of the public’s reflexive embrace of Simpson way back in the 1990s.
We join Maya in 2018, enjoying her life, suppressing her guilt over the trial’s outcome, and spending time riding horses — but the opportunity to prosecute Johnson again, when he’s under suspicion of a whole new murder, is too delicious. One trusts Clark’s judgment in depicting her Simpson figure as obnoxious, to a point: His telling cops that the crime scene was like the movie “I was nominated for” barely clears the bar. His staring into a two-way mirror, knowing Maya stands behind it, and declaring “You’re never going to get me, Maya,” falls short. Later, his attempts to bond with his family are depicted as the work of a mastermind-like P.R. consultant trying to win the short-attention-spanned Twitterati. It’s not that this wasn’t true of Simpson, in his own manner suiting the media of the time. But we’ve also seen this before, rendered with reportorial curiosity rather than just bile.
The protagonist of “The Fix” enjoyed eight years away from the spotlight. Clark had roughly 21 — from the verdict coming down in 1995 to the “Simpson” Emmy run in 2016. In their respective breaks, Maya has been brewing with Javert-like contempt for the perp that got away. And Clark, Maya’s creator, evidently has too. What’s too bad about “The Fix” is the angles it lets go — the notion that anyone who seriously contemplates the racial component of high-profile cases is kidding themselves before they even get a word out, the ways in which prosecution (in the 1990s or now) fails both victims and defendants. Tellingly, we see nothing about why, exactly, Johnson got off in the show’s first two episodes: None of Maya’s missteps, none of Team Johnson’s clever maneuvers. What Maya couldn’t see seems only to be that a clueless public didn’t agree with her. It’s perhaps fitting that Clark, a career prosecutor, has such trouble writing a defense for herself.
The more the predictably prickly Maya, wounded by defeat the show can’t or won’t complicate, sits at the show’s center, the more it suffers. The series revolves around its Clark figure, with victims entering the story only as figures who keep Maya up at night and its defendant only Maya’s bete noire. It is powered solely by Clark’s resentment. And though it’s rocket fuel powerful enough to keep “The Fix” watchable, it forecloses any insight from a figure who may, decades later, still be too close to a story that, ultimately, is not solely her own.
“The Fix.” ABC. March 18. Two episodes screened for review.
Cast: Robin Tunney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Scott Cohen, Adam Rayner, Merrin Dungey, Breckin Meyer, Marc Blucas, Mouzam Makkar, Alex Saxon
Executive Producers: Marcia Clark, Elizabeth Craft, Sarah Fain, Michael Katleman, Laurie Zaks, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman