History cannot be rewritten, but that’s not going to stop American Crime Story: The People v OJ Simpson from trying. Ryan Murphy’s new show about the ‘most publicised trial in history’ doesn’t go full Tarantino and shoot OJ Simpson in the face, but it sure comes close.
The Simpson trial has almost become a fable now, a story of immense injustice passed down as a sorry reminder of just how broken the criminal justice system can be.
For the uninitiated, OJ Simpson was a star Football player (of the American kind) who, after numerous earlier allegations of domestic violence, was arrested as the prime suspect in the murder of his wife and the man she was allegedly seeing. To put it in perspective, OJ was as legendary in the ‘90s as MS Dhoni or Virat Kohli are today. This was bigger than the Jessica Lal case, more high profile than either Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt’s run-ins with the law. They called it ‘The Trial of the Century’ and they weren’t wrong.
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As a show, it follows in the anthology footsteps of True Detective and Fargo. But where True Detective was darker than a Satanist at midnight, and Fargo as irreverent as, well, the Coens, ACS is more like a Baz Luhrmann musical. It is, without doubt, the best show of the season.
It is an ensemble drama in the truest sense of the word, one that would greatly benefit from one of those charts that they have at the beginning of The Godfather to explain who’s who. The players can be roughly divided into two halves: The prosecution and the defence. Leading the defence is John Travolta, in the show’s most outlandish performance as the living wax creature Robert Shapiro. In his team are Johnnie Cochran, played with the singsong bravado of a preacher by Courtney B Vance, and David Schwimmer, playing Robert Kardashian with that trademark bemused David Schwimmer look.
Prosecuting Simpson and representing the people of Los Angeles are Marcia Clark, played by series standout Sarah Paulson and Christopher Darden, a simmering Sterling K Brown. They’re as honest as they come, perhaps too good for their own good.
Oddly, the character who leaves the slightest impression, possibly because of the top form the rest of the cast is in, is OJ Simpson as played by Cuba Gooding Jr. While the others look remarkably like their real-life counterparts, Cuba Gooding Jr sticks out. Not only does he seem too frenetic in the central role, he doesn’t have enough screentime and somehow can’t bring the same magnetism here that made him a star and earned him an Oscar in Jerry Maguire.
It’s common for a show to have one outstanding episode in a season, the one that everyone remembers and excitedly debates. In True Detective it was the one with the single take action sequence and in Game of Thrones it was the one with the red wedding. ACS has 3. I’ve only ever seen this in Community and Breaking Bad before. But episodes 2, 6 and 8 are some of the finest TV you’ll ever experience.
As the trail wears on, the more it starts resembling a media circus, and the more we get to know our characters. They all come with their own personal agendas. Shapiro is in it for the limelight. Cochran defends Simpson as an excuse to exact revenge for his community. Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden do it largely because it’s the right thing to do, but as the layers are peeled off over the season, so are their true motivations – nothing too drastic – but it’s there. Robert Kardashian, however, is given an annoyingly sympathetic portrayal, as is his family. It’s the one major misstep the show makes.
It has the spirit of an NWA song, the poetic fury of a Maya Angelou novel. Its camera doesn’t simply capture the events; it waltzes around its subjects with the confidence only a show that knows it’s doing something important can have. Not since HBO’s The Jinx has a show been so excruciatingly addictive. It bucks the binge-watching trend by making you wait a week between episodes, reeling from the latest twist.
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ACS works superbly as a call to arms. It’s just as timely as last year’s Straight Outta Compton and Chi-Raq, as important as Selma from the year before that, and going back a couple more years, Fruitvale Station. Police brutality isn’t an exclusively American thing. It happens just as often in our country. But there’s a reason this show opens, bravely, with footage of the Rodney King riots. Those riots happened in 1992. In 2012, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. In 2014, Ferguson revolted. Suddenly, we find ourselves surrounded by ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ and #BlackLivesMatter. Suddenly, Chris Rock is raising his fist in front of a billion people at the Oscars. Decades have passed but not much has changed. ACS has something to say.
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The author tweets @NaaharRohan