You may have heard of a little midseason show called American Crime Story. No, no, not American Crime. That’s another (also excellent) one-crime-per-season anthology series with a confusingly similar name. American Crime Story’s freshman season is subtitled The People vs. O.J. Simpson and focuses on the trial of the former American football hero accused of a particularly heinous double homicide–considered by many to be one of the trials of the century.
The People vs. O.J. is already a juggernaut, and it’s yet to debut. With its rather eclectic, all-star cast, viewers have been heavily anticipating this miniseries (for better or worse) for months now. Who wouldn’t be interested in seeing how histrionic goofball Ross from Friends would fare stepping into the serious dramatic role of Simpson’s best friend and attorney, patriarch of the future royal family of reality TV, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer)? John Travolta, in his first major TV role since the 1970s’ Welcome Back, Kotter, as fellow defense lawyer Robert Shapiro? Yeah, we’re not missing this.
Executive produced by prolific showrunner Ryan Murphy (Scream Queens, American Horror Story), this first installment of the new miniseries is based on a book written by Jeffrey Toobin about the trial, called The Run of His Life.
Going in, it was decidedly iffy whether the series would bring anything new to the table regarding the trial (which, being a media sensation, was dissected and revisited ad nauseam in the years since). However, the writers and showrunners completely succeed in creating an eminently watchable, engaging, and altogether unique view of this well-publicized event in American history.
However, we’ve previewed the first six episodes and have five reasons why you should absolutely tune in!
This Is Not Your Typical Ryan Murphy Fare
Perhaps you’re one who raised a suspicious brow upon hearing Murphy’s name attached? While we here at The TV Junkies usually love Ryan Murphy and his zany creations to pieces, it is important to note that The People vs. O.J. is not remotely in the same category as American Horror Story, Glee, or Scream Queens.
Why is this necessary to note? Simply because, much as we enjoy Murphy & Co.’s series, he does have a tendency toward campiness and going off-the-rails at or around the midpoint of a given season. Glee, his most recent non-anthology series, was basically a mess by the end, as both viewers and critics agreed.
Naturally, there’s a valid concern that such a tendency to go over the top in terms of plot and dialogue, often at the expense of tone and quality consistency, would make a mockery of this tragic (and real) event. Luckily, this wasn’t the case at all. So how is it the show can feel absolutely nothing like typical Murphy fare? That’s because the show was actually written and created by two writers outside of Murphy’s usual cache of scribes, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski. Murphy did direct the first two episodes–and the direction is terrific–but Alexander and Karaszewski’s writing is sharper than much of Murphy’s (zinger-filled as Murphy tends to be, some of his lines are hit-and-a-miss).
It Perfectly Contextualizes Why The Trial Was Such a Sensation
The series does not begin with the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, or with O.J., or in any way to do with the “main event” at all. Instead, the series opens on the race riots in Los Angeles. It repeatedly highlights racial tensions at the time, and the overwhelming mistrust much of the residents feel towards the L.A.P.D.
Similarly, much is made of O.J.’s celebrity/American hero status. The theme of ‘celebrity’ as somehow considered a separate entity from your average Joe is also revisited time and again–most interestingly, within “Bobby” Kardashian’s interactions with his young children. It’s both an incredible wink to the camera and bit of foreshadowing that somehow manages to feel perfectly in place and not at all gratuitous. And why is that?
The Story Is Relevant (and Important) Now
Unfortunately, racial tensions and race riots are just as prominent today as they were in mid-90s Los Angeles. At one point, the show depicts a magazine digitally altering O.J.’s mugshot; a man comments to Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), the man who would soon lead O.J.’s defense team, that they “made him blacker.” Cue sound bites of various news correspondents bickering over whether that move was racist. Disturbingly, it was like watching a clip from this past year’s Daily Show.
Similarly, celebrity culture has only become more exaggerated and ingrained. The People vs. O.J. manages to contextualize the trial and ensuing media circus as the first of its kind and, in many ways, represents it as the progenitor of the modern attitude towards celebrity scandals in the media.
Powerhouse Performances All Around
We expected Sarah Paulson to bring the house down–and she does, hands down, steal the show as prosecutor Marcia Clark. However, we were incredibly impressed with Travolta’s portrayal of smarmy defense lawyer Rob Shapiro, Schwimmer’s baffled and conflicted Robert Kardashian, Vance’s enigmatic, eloquent Johnnie Cochran, and particularly Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s enormously layered and emotive portrayal of O.J., the man himself.
Importantly, the show manages to extend significant focus to each of the major players in turn. We come away with fuller, more complete pictures of the principal “characters” (particularly Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran). This is particularly impressive given that the real-life press turned those two into caricatures who were parodied in subsequent popular culture media. That The People vs. O.J. demands the viewer regard each of these characters as real, complete humans is a remarkable feat, and the writers pull it off fantastically.
It Brings To Light a Unique Spin on Seemingly Well-Known Events
How can we become hooked on a show where the ending has already been spoiled for you (given that it’s based on true events)? Beyond the phenomenal performances by main cast and side characters alike, the show does a wonderful job of taking small moments to contextualize the true “behind the scenes” story, so to speak.
For example, glimpses into Marcia Clark’s fraught personal life and her reactions to the evidence suggesting that O.J. beat Nicole over a long period of time make Clark a much realer and more relatable character. Similarly, Gooding Jr.’s initial breakdowns are harrowing and get you uncomfortably close to the character (particularly during the infamous car chase scene, which has the entire second episode devoted to it).
So don’t let Travolta’s terrifyingly taut face put you off of this remarkable show! Will you be tuning in? Let us know and if so, what you’re most eager to see by commenting below!
The People vs O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story debuts on Tuesday, February 2, at 10 p.m. ET on FX and FX Canada.
Caralynn is a freelance entertainment writer. She also writes about all things television for TV Fanatic, Tell-Tale TV, HelloGiggles, and New York Observer. In her spare time, when she's not writing about TV, she's tweeting about it over at @caralynn_marie.