REVIEW: 'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story' Is a Superb, True Crime Must-See

Performances by Sarah Paulson, John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance are wittily sharp and, in a sense, wittily self-reflective

Photo: FX

There are media frenzies and there are media frenzies.

You can make a similar distinction when discussing legal circuses and celebrity meltdowns. The O.J. Simpson murder trial, a public narrative that delivered a series of sensational jolts from start to finish, consistently falls into the second camp. Everything veers to the right side of the ellipses – the sensational side, the side that goes too far, almost to the improbable.

The case, which ended with the acquittal of Simpson on two counts of murder, was referred to as “The Trial of the Century” – the last one – and within the first hour of FX’s superb The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, you’ll remember why. Or, if you weren’t around for the white Bronco highway chase, Kato Kaelin (no, that’s not the name of a minor character in the new Star Wars) or the astonishing moment when the glove didn’t fit, you’ll learn why.

There are trials of the century and there are trials of the century.

It may seem insensitive to say that you’re in for a treat. But you are. Co-executive producer Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) knows how to extract all the pulp and juice from this riveting saga. That may also seem insensitive, to discuss the Simpson trial as if it were the largest grapefruit ever grown and harvested in the history of the nation. But again, the Simpson case had nothing to do with the ordinary parameters of discourse.

The opening episodes focus on the rapidly amassed teams that would face off, in the courts of both law and opinion, to fight over the question of whether smooth, handsome, affable Simpson – super-athlete, actor, celebrity, spokesperson – was guilty of slashing to death his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald Goldman, on June 12, 1994.

The cast of characters is immense, and the cast of actors and actresses is terrific – especially Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark and, for Team O.J., John Travolta as Robert Shapiro and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran. The performances are wittily sharp and, in a sense, wittily self-reflective: The Simpson case immediately presented itself as a showcase for everyone involved, a golden opportunity to seize the moment and (better yet) the spotlight – these were the roles of a lifetime.

These are actors playing actors.

The one performance that doesn’t seem to click, surprisingly, is Cuba Gooding Jr.‘s as Simpson. He hits all the emotional notes correctly, but he doesn’t look or sound at all like O.J. It’s as if Gooding were presented to us as a neutral template onto which we were expected to project our own conceptions of Simpson – something like the play version of The Elephant Man. This is odd.

Even so, the show is excellent. Like Netflix’s documentary series Making a Murderer, it’s a true-crime must-see.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays (10 p.m. ET) on FX.

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