Mysteries on the Small Screen: The People v. O. J. Simpson

Title: American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson

Starring: John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sara Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, and Nathan Lane

First aired: 2016

Where you can watch it: FXNow, Hulu, Amazon Prime

The Run of His LifeDid you watch the ten-part FX series The People v O. J. Simpson? It was based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book The Run of His Life. Toobin makes no secret of his belief that Simpson is guilty of two murders; the television show is slightly less definitive about that, but it does take the same general approach: the case wasn’t won by the defense, it was lost by the prosecution.

The series follows the basic structure of Toobin’s book (the author is listed in the opening credits as a consultant). It chronicles Simpson’s arrest, trial, and acquittal, focusing mainly on the behind-the-scenes stories, the stuff we didn’t see when the trial was going on. Like, for example, the backbiting and manipulation that went on amongst the members of Simpson’s defense team. Or the behind-the-scenes motivations for a couple of major tactical errors by the prosecution: using L.A. cop Mark Fuhrman as a key witness and the disastrous decision to have Simpson try on the bloody gloves.

Courtney B Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran

Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran.

The very talented cast is made up to look as much like their real-world counterparts as possible, which in some cases adds an element of realism. See, for example, Courtney B. Vance as defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, or David Schwimmer (an unexpected delight) as Simpson’s old friend Robert Kardashian: they look almost uncannily like their real-life counterparts. And let’s not forget the production design and costuming, which create an almost tactile mid-1990s environment for these simulacrums to move around in. When we’re watching the show, it sometimes feels like we’re watching the actual events.

On the other hand, John Travolta, as Simpson’s attorney Robert Shapiro, looks almost grotesque at some moments. That’s not a criticism. I think Travolta is brilliant as Shapiro, beautifully nuanced, but his appearance is rather arresting, as though he were made up for a stage production, or an operatic performance. Similarly, we have Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey: the performance and the character design are, I think, deliberately a little over-the-top. This isn’t reality, it’s opera: bigger than life, gaudier than life, louder than life. It’s what the Simpson trial felt like, back in 1995.

John Travolta as Simpson’s attorney Robert Shapiro

John Travolta as Simpson’s attorney Robert Shapiro.

Interestingly, Cuba Gooding Jr. isn’t decked out with makeup or prosthetics to make him look like O. J. Simpson. Gooding, unlike most of the rest of the cast, is playing someone of whom we saw relatively little during the trial (we only really saw him when he was in the courtroom). He didn’t appear on the public stage the way the various lawyers did. Gooding does a remarkable job of taking what we did see of Simpson at the time—the confused Simpson, the smirking Simpson, the Simpson who seemed at times to be playing a character in the courtroom—and building a performance around those characteristics. Unlike Vance or Travolta or Paulson, who are playing real people, Gooding is, I think, playing a character who reflects our perceptions and memories of the real person.

I watched most of the Simpson trial in 1995. I remember the spectacle surrounding it. Toobin’s book, published when the trial was still fresh in our minds, captured some of that spectacle; the FX series, because it’s a dramatization of real events, captures even more of it. Take that for what it is—is true-crime spectacle a good thing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Images are from US Magazine:




About the Author:

David Pitt lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In addition to reviewing for Booklist, he writes a monthly column about paperback fiction and nonfiction for the Winnipeg Free Press. He has contributed to The Booklist Reader since 2010.

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