American Crime Story – The People v. O.J. Simpson s1 ep 10

I hadn’t planned to say anything more about The People v O.J. Simpson. But now that it’s finished: my God, this was a great show. It kind of feels as if it’s in poor taste to say that a dramatic retelling of a gruesome real-life murder was ridiculously entertaining. But it was. I even found myself watching Marcia and Chris and… well, is it shipping? What do you call it when the people actually exist in real life, might or might not have hooked up 20 years ago, are now being played by actors, and you want them to get together on the show? Retro-shipping? In which case I’m retro-shipping #Darcia into the middle of next week.

Given that the plot is well-known – albeit, as it turns out, a gift to dramatists – what the show really needed was good acting. And here, of course, it cleaned up. I warmed, as the season went on, to John Travolta’s larger-than-life Robert Shapiro, especially in the context of Cuba Gooding, Jr., as Simpson, who went in almost the opposite direction – fitting, perhaps, for a case which became much bigger than OJ – but got a chance to shine in the dazzling final episode. Were David Schwimmer not Ross out of Friends, he would be getting more credit for his increasingly haunted performance as Robert Kardashian, slowly coming to the conclusion that his beloved Juice was guilty. And in just about any other show Nathan Lane’s subtle, wily F. Lee Bailey would have been the standout.

At the centre, though, were three remarkable performances. In my review of the first episode I singled out Sarah Paulson (playing Marcia Clark) and Courtney B. Vance (playing Johnnie Cochran) for praise, and as the show went on they just got better. By the end, though, I was wondering whether both had been overtaken by Sterling K. Brown, turning in a quite jaw-dropping performance as Chris Darden, particularly in the astonishing ninth episode, as all of the tension of the case and its context – racial, sexual, whatever – started to boil over. That episode took what looked like a high-stakes gamble by spending quite a long time on the legal back-and-forth, but more than got away with it, leading up to the still almost-unbelievable moment when Detective Mark Fuhrman (yet another impressive performance, this one from Steven Pasquale) took the Fifth on being asked if he’d planted any evidence in the case.

This isn’t quite the best show I’ve seen in the last 12 months. (Fargo, if you’re wondering.) But it’s yet another Golden Age of Television benchmark, even in today’s increasingly-cluttered TV world, and I would expect Emmy nominations all over the place. Nor did it lose sight of the victims – even if Darden, at the final press conference, breaking down in the arms of the Goldmans hadn’t got me, the last shot would have.

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson s1 ep 1

It’s arguable that American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson pulls its smartest stroke at the start, with real-life footage of Rodney King’s beating by police officers, and the 1992 Los Angeles riots which followed the acquittal of the officers. The riots happened 2 years before Simpson’s arrest, but it’s a statement of intent, and one which ties the show as strongly to the present day as to pre-O.J. history.

Anyway, it sets the scene for a thoroughly entertaining episode, which just about manages to combine seriousness and a hint of camp. As with Deutschland 83, half-remembered names come swimming back into focus: Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Shapiro, Kato Kaelin. Some of the acting is very good indeed: the standout so far is Sarah Paulson as lead prosecutor Clark, appalled by the crime but ambitious nonetheless. The reliable Courtney B. Vance is excellent as Cochran. And Cuba Gooding, Jr. makes up for his lack of resemblance to the real O.J. by giving the character a fury and neediness which feels right.

The most problematic performance so far (discounting David Schwimmer’s, which is perfectly fine, but dude has a lot of running to do to escape the shadow of Ross Geller) is John Travolta’s as Shapiro: Travolta seems somehow detached from the rest of the cast, almost as if he’s just too famous for the part. This is perhaps fitting; it’s a dramatic portrayal of a crime which had, in its unfolding mid-90s narrative, elements of fame as well as race and domestic abuse. But on the evidence of this first episode American Crime Story will more than get away with it. I really enjoyed it, and I’d recommend giving it a try, particularly if you’re old enough to remember the events first time round. I’m not anticipating further reviews, but I didn’t expect to be writing this one either, so we’ll see.