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Strong performances by John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding Jr. make 10-part drama The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story a tour de force.
Strong performances by John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding Jr. make 10-part drama The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story a tour de force.

John Doyle: The People v. O.J. Simpson is an instant classic of TV storytelling Add to ...

‘Who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?”

That question is asked by lawyer Robert Shapiro and the answer is this: His client, O.J. Simpson.

In the vast and lurid annals of American crime, the trial of O.J. Simpson has significant standing. The brutal murder of two people – one of whom, Nicole Simpson, was almost decapitated – and the accused a very famous man, a national hero. What unfolded is a narrative we think we know. But 20 years later, the details blur. We know the verdict, but do we understand it and all that happened in the layers of legal machinations, twists and accusations?

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (starts Tuesday, City, FX Canada, 10 p.m.) takes us back inside the crime, the trial and all the reverberations. In the annals of great television, the 10-part drama emerges instantly as a classic, a showpiece of tour-de-force TV storytelling. It’s that good, that rich and compelling.

“He didn’t ask how she died”

The broader cultural circumstance, which resonates throughout, is deftly established in the opening minutes. We see footage of the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers and the riots that exploded after the verdict in that case. We meet O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr., who is excellent) leaving his home, getting into a limo to go to the airport and chatting idly with the awestruck driver. The driver says he hasn’t driven many celebrities. “I remember the first celebrity I met, “ O.J. replies casually. “That’s what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

Then the slow enactment of the crucial discovery. A neighbour walking a dog sees bloody footprints and discovers two dead bodies. The first cops arrive. One notes, “There’s no media here.” The other replies resignedly, “There’s been a double murder in Brentwood. They’ll be here soon.” All of the key pieces of evidence come into play – the glove is found, bloody fingerprints are noticed. A cop reaches O.J. at a hotel in Chicago and tells him the news of his wife’s death. O.J. seems groggy. The cop, after putting down the phone, tells a colleague, “He didn’t ask how she died.”

“He’s got the cops chasing him. He’s black now”

Enter Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, who is superb in a deeply challenging role), the prosecutor. She’s heard, vaguely, of O.J. She looks at the case. Clear-eyed, unaffected by his fame, she sees O.J. as the number-one suspect. You know from the start that her journey through this case will be life-changing, a brutal education in celebrity politics and the circus of constant media attention. And race. Deftly interwoven into the early part of the narrative is the subtext the LAPD and the prosecutor don’t understand or acknowledge that fact.

But watching the beginnings of the O.J. case unfold is Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance, magnificent here), a charismatic lawyer already on a roll, mustering all manner of indignation about racism in the LAPD and absolutely magnetic when he starts talking race and revenge against the police. He’s cocky beyond belief – another foreshadowing of the trial’s bizarre twists – while his black friend inside the prosecutor’s office, Christopher Darden, is wary of the case he knows will be a mess of racial attitudes and posturing.

While the outlandish chase of O.J. in the white Bronco is playing out, Darden tells his neighbours that O.J. isn’t really a black hero. He’s a guy who left the ’hood to live a life with white celebrities. And a neighbour scoffs, “He’s got the cops chasing him. He’s black now.”

“Can you spell that name, ‘Kardashian’?”

From the get-go, O.J.’s close friend, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer, in the post-Friends role of a lifetime) is by his side. A lawyer who has stopped practising law, he’s very rich but not famous, and devoted to O.J. Exactly why isn’t clear. But O.J.’s a star and Kardashian’s entire circle is made up of very wealthy, famous people.

In one genius-level scene of black humour, Kardashian speaks at his first press conference. Reporters ask him to spell his name. The scene cuts to his young daughters watching TV at home and, in unison, chanting out the spelling of their family name. Kardashian is dragged into helping O.J. not just by friendship, but by lawyer Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) who has answered a plea for help from O.J. Shapiro is the ultimate L.A. and Hollywood insider. “You know that I’m a fixer of things,” he tells a cop.

In some reviews, Travolta has been criticized for his mannered portrayal of Shapiro – all slow-drawl grandiose speaking voice and hand gestures. But it works. Anyone who has spent time inside L.A.’s powerful elite recognizes the showy pomposity that is attached to real influence.

“O.J. is news, he’s entertainment and he’s sport!”

The drama is essentially the work of producer Ryan Murphy. In his Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens, Murphy has always created and written in broad strokes. Sometimes the tone is ideal, as it was in Glee. Sometimes, as in various American Horror Story seasons, the tone and rhythm are fumbled and gross excess is the result.

Here, being guided by Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson (and much of the writing done by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski while Murphy directs), the tone is perfect. Murphy’s point, throughout, is that everything about the O.J. trial was rooted in the day-to-day doings and stratagems of L.A. and the entertainment industry – an industry itself selling a false view of the world, events and narratives that mechanically conclude as uplifting.

It was inevitable, he seems to suggest, that the legal system as it applied to O.J.’s alleged crime, would begin to morph into something false, unbelievable but true to the mechanics of Hollywood storytelling. The entire trial was showbiz at its very worst.

Murphy, by intuition or intent, seems to view the O.J. trial as a situationist act – an event that challenged the spectacle and pushed it to absurdity, thus exposing what the art-theory situationists call “the effective dictatorship of illusion.”

Illusions are shattered or affirmed over and over. While the white Bronco chase proceeds, a TV executive storms into master control and orders that the NBA finals be dumped off the air and replaced by non-stop O.J. coverage. He barks, “O.J. is news, he’s entertainment and he’s sport!”

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