American Crime Story: Episode 1

O.J. Simpson is a name recognized for one reason. In 1995, an unprecedentedly scandalous verdict was received by a jury at one of the most notorious murder trials in history. Simpson was found not guilty for the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Nicole’s friend, Ronald Goldman. Despite an overwhelmingly vast body of evidence in favour of the incarceration of Simpson, the former NFL player was acquitted of all charges (until later trials saw Simpson serve time at a correctional facility). Having been described as the “American Tragedy” in a Time Magazine headline from 1994, it’s no wonder that Director Ryan Murphy chose the extraordinary trial as the subject for the first season of his latest anthology series.

The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story debuted in the UK earlier this evening on BBC Two. According to Ryan Murphy, the series intends to tackle “themes of race, police brutality [and] celebrity.” This claim echoes previous comments made by Murphy in the run-up to each season of American Horror Story. For example, the over-arching theme of Asylum was supposedly homophobia, the long-running motif in Coven was meant to be race, the point of discussion in Hotel was intended to be addiction. None of these themes, however, appeared to be prominent enough to be considered morals of their respective season, instead they appeared as simple plot devices used to further the story. However, in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, race issues are immediately highlighted as Murphy’s focus. Instantly, the viewer is exposed to images of police brutality and violence as seen through the lenses of CCTV cameras in the opening scenes of Episode 1. It draws the viewers’ attention to one of the foremost subject matters in this series: indifference. This refreshing decisiveness makes a change from some of Murphy’s more avant-garde dramas whose topics of discussion are often lost in the theatre.

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This season’s story arc is titled The People v. O. J. Simpson. But who are the people? Well, being a series fronted by Murphy, the acclaimed director behind successful American TV shows American Horror Story, Glee and Scream Queens, the series was bound to feature an all-star cast. Cuba Gooding, Jr., Sarah Paulson, John Travolta and David Schwimmer all take on challenging, inspired roles as key figures in the trial of Simpson. It is Paulson, though, that really stands out in the first episode. Paulson champions the task of imitating real-life prosecutor Marcia Clark with the same attitude, determination and wonderful hair she brought to American Horror Story: Asylum as reporter Lana Winters. Her no-nonsense boldness and assertive nature is instantly made clear to the viewers in the brash way she asserts her dominance in the office, particularly in addressing her secretary, perhaps foreshadowing a later cold treatment of the case at hand. It is even more impressive to find out that Paulson juggled her role in The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story with her role in Ryan Murphy’s other award-winning anthology series American Horror Story: Hotel, proving exactly the versatility and talent Paulson is so well known for. Cuba Gooding Jr’s performance as convicted O.J is just as authentic, particularly in a scene in this episode in which his family are gathered in the same room, all hiding from the media. He conveys the temper Simpson expressed with anger and rage, ultimately taking him to court. Another standout performance comes from David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, friend and member of Simpson’s defence team. Schwimmer’s coveys Kardashian’s cautious and, sometimes seemingly obsequious, relationship with Simpson in his ability to express emotion (especially in a scene towards the end of this episode where Simpson threatens his own life) and his funnily accurate resemblance of the actual Robert Kardashian. Courtney B. Vance is also an excellent addition to the already unbelievable cast. His character, Johnnie Cochran, was a key member of Simpson’s defence team and a major factor in his subsequent acquittal. Vance’s portrayal of Cochran is immediately charismatic and intelligent—and perhaps the one voice of reason in a sea of vain lawyers and corrupt celebrities. Although appearing only briefly in this episode, Cochran was of very high significance in the O.J. trial. Not only this, but Cochran was also at the forefront of advocacy against police brutality at the time of the trial, having previously defended victims of such brutality in court. This, therefore, makes Vance’s character a perfect candidate to address one of the major issues this series has set out to cover.

John Travolta generally received negative feedback from most critics with regards to his portrayal of Robert Shapiro, a principal member of Simpson’s defence team. Yes, he came across as creepy, but I think it was good creepy. Travolta plays a sinister character and that works in the favour of the story that Ryan Murphy is trying to tell. After all, it is insinuated by Murphy that Shapiro understood that Simpson probably was guilty of what he is accused – anyone willing to defend with such ignorance ought to be a little sinister. The wit he brings to the role is unique of Travolta; in Episode 1 there is a moment in which his character and prosecutor Marcia Clark share a hectic and disordered phone conversation to the hilarity of the viewer and the frustration of Clark.

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In one of the best scenes of the first episode, Selma Blair and Connie Britton’s characters are introduced to the viewers as friends of Nicole Brown Simpson. Younger viewers and fans of the trashier variations of reality TV, myself included, might recognise Blair’s character to be Kris Jenner (possibly from her cry to the children running about in the background: “Khloe! Kourtney! Stop running!”), and Britton’s character to be Faye Resnick, friend of Kyle Richards in recurring appearances on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. The two exchange gossipy funeral chit-chat in dramatically large black hats; a witty and characteristically Murphy scene in a similar vein to that of the exchanges that took place regularly in his comedy, Scream Queens. Resnick forlornly declares that “[Nicole] was my personal angel, I wouldn’t have gone to rehab if it weren’t for her” with an expression that masked all irony. I was so thankful for this scene purely because it reminded me of Murphy’s camp humour that I feared would be lost in the serious nature of the story. With faith in Murphy’s wit, these two characters will hopefully crop up frequently in the coming episodes to provide comic relief in between scenes of heavy drama and conflict.

The first episode of The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story serves predominantly as an introduction to the case and the key figures involved in the trial. Though saying that, this episode was more than simply introductory – it brought to life characters we read about on paper. Murphy has taken a story that could well have been a clinical and, frankly, boring legal drama with the wrong direction, and breathed new life into a conflict that occurred almost 20 years ago. The genius of the show is that this isn’t a ‘who dunnit’. But although popular opinion would contend that O.J. was guilty, the world never heard a complete verdict. This sense of uncertainty, therefore, lends itself to the drama as we see the trial of O.J. through a number of different narrative perspectives including that of the defence, of the prosecution, and of the friends and family of O.J. Simpson and Simpson himself. This way, Murphy can leave no stone unturned in his quest to show the world the ‘full story’ behind the Simpson trial.

The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story continues on BBC Two next Monday (22/02/16) at 9pm.