Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Ryan Murphy knows how to make a splash. The first season of his latest FX anthology series, American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, opens not with the murder of the defendant’s wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, but with video footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots.
Those images, landing on our screens once again in the midst of newfound national outrage concerning police racism and brutality, are still incendiary enough to scorch the skin. And by prefacing his 10-part retelling of the O.J. Simpson murder case with such an indelible moment in American racial politics, Murphy immediately articulates American Crime Story‘s ambitious angle: to not only depict one of the most sensational trials in U.S. history, but also to address its unparalleled standing as an American landmark.
To regard the O.J. Simpson case from a 2016 perspective is to understand it as a potent harbinger of coming times. The trial, and ensuing media circus, signified the birth of a new celebrity culture, one in which mere proximity could secure someone a massive, mesmerized audience. No trial since has captivated the country so completely, but many have achieved similar notoriety, from Casey Anthony to Oscar Pistorius, and reality television as a whole owes a considerable debt to some of the case’s principal players – especially vacuously loyal Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), who brings his family (and impressionable kids) along for the ride as he thoughtlessly takes the accused’s side.
The brutal backdrop to Brown Simpson’s murder – glimpsed through chilling tapes of her 911 calls – also feels queasily current, given how many domestic abuse cases have since taken shape against NFL athletes like Ray Rice. “The system failed her,” prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark (a sublime Sarah Paulson) says when the case comes across her desk, her voice even but icy, filled with slow-burning fury. But the series also charts how Clark’s own efforts to convict Simpson (played in the series by a very good Cuba Gooding Jr.) were thrown for a loop by the media’s cruel indictment of her physical appearance, as well as its stereotyping of her as a heartless “shrew” or “bitch.” A standout sixth episode (Paulson’s Emmy submission, for sure) charts the personal toll with heartbreaking insight.
Even more prominently, issues of race and class seep into the trial from all sides, with suggestions that O.J. may have been another in a long line of black men railroaded by the racist LAPD catching fire, despite Clark’s valiant attempts to extinguish them with hard evidence. The defendant’s fame complicates things – when his defense team proposes adding celebrated African-American litigator Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), he’s offended. “I’m not black,” he snaps. “I’m O.J.!”