‘The People v O.J. Simpson’ Review: We’re All Guilty

Guilty pleasures abound in “American Crime Story” — but so do deeper messages

cub gooding jr in the people v oj simpson

Even knowing the tragic, ridiculous way it has to end, I charged like a bronco through “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

The real case had everything: Enough tawdry details for a Barnes & Noble discount rack of tell-alls. But also enough insights into race, celebrity, and justice to inspire thoughtful page-turners like Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Run of His Life,” the basis of the series.

The FX limited-run series is every bit as watchable as the insanely watchable trial.

Everyone old enough to have spent 1995 staring at Court TV has instant recall of pointless O.J. details: The white Bronco, the names Bundy and Rockingham, the awkward plural pronunciation of “Bruno Magli.”

So executive producer Ryan Murphy and his very skilled team focus on fascinating details we somehow never knew. More insightfully, they reframe the entire case not just as a botched double-homicide prosecution, but as a casualty of L.A.’s decades-long failure to rein in racist cops and celebrities.

The series feels hyper-real, hypnotic, and more relevant now than ever.

Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski’s skills as writers, executive producers and ringmasters may be best illustrated by their inclusion of a nice young family named the Kardashians. It’s a stunt to lure younger viewers, but also a inside joke about viewers’ susceptibility to stunts.

The family patriarch, Robert, was one of O.J.’s best friends, and his children play a surprisingly poignant part in the series. We feel his pain as he tries and fails to stem their addiction to cameras.

Everyone else is treated fairly, too. Even Simpson and Mark Fuhrman, whose use of the N-word probably cost the people their case, are blessed with better actors than they deserve, the excellent Cuba Gooding Jr. and Steven Pasquale.

The fairness is crucial. The story’s moral authority to judge the real people it portrays rises or falls based on its grasp and representation of true events. The first six episodes made available for review included several moments that seemed dubious to me, but almost all checked out – if not based on proven facts, at least based on actual allegations.

Yes, Chris Darden says that O.J. really did once yell at him, “Get off my bench!” and that Fuhrman sheepishly confessed to collecting Nazi medals. Only one moment in the series – a lawyer’s courtroom collapse – definitely did not happen. But even that moment, like other courtroom scenes, condenses events rather than fictionalizing.

Most even-handedly of all, the series declines to call Simpson a murderer. Gooding plays O.J. as a man who either didn’t kill Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman, or believes that if he did it would have to have been because he loved her very much. Gooding is most impressive in the scenes the courtroom cameras couldn’t see: controlling and being controlled by his lawyers, charming one moment, whiny the next. His O.J. is weak and explosive at once.

No one comes off more sympathetically than Darden’s co-counsel, Marcia Clark. If you’ve ever made fun of her hair or said she seems like a ball-buster, Sarah Paulson‘s portrayal will make you regret it. John Travolta, also an executive producer, does his best work in two decades as O.J.’s pompous, insecure attorney, Robert Shapiro. It’s one of those insidiously brilliant performances in which the actor looks exactly like his character — once you get past their looking nothing alike.

Courtney B. Vance masters the mesmerizing quality of Cochran, so admirable and ruthless at once. His performance makes you long for an alternate reality in which he uses his brilliance to convict the cops who beat Rodney King, instead of getting Simpson acquitted.

I won’t say more about the casting, because part of the delight of “The People vs. O.J. Simpson” is discovering who plays whom. There’s glee at each celebrity unveiling.

But our joy at the sight of each new famous face underscores how much we, the people, obsess over fame. And that our fixation helped O.J. go free.

The first episode of FX’s 10-part “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres at 10/9c tonight.