The People v. O.J. Simpson: Episode 1 recap
That The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story — FX’s incredible, mind-blowing, problematic, surprising, wait-this-really-happened, holy-fuck-that-really-happened, whaaaaaat, etc. new series from executive producer Ryan Murphy, screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and a murderer’s row of has-been actors — opens with shots of the 1992 Los Angeles riots feels both incredibly obvious and incredibly surprising.
After all, it was never not about race. In post-Rodney King L.A. how could it not have been?
But to see that rioting footage now in 2016, hard on the heels of years of protests now with different names like Trayvon Martin or Freddie Gray but the same types role players as 1992, brings everything back home and reminds us that, for a trial that’s been nearly scrubbed of its racial implications as it’s faded into our collective popular memory, the O.J. Simpson trial was one of the first to raise questions about race, class, celebrity, and justice. Questions we still haven’t answered today.
There was an incredible 30 for 30 documentary, “June 17th, 1994,” released in 2010 and featuring nothing but clips from one of the most important moments in the history of sports, celebrity, media, and the fusing of the three. On the same day as O.J.’s chase from LAPD down the 405, director Brett Morgen stitches together clips from Arnold Palmer’s final U.S. Open, the New York Ranger’s ticker-tape victory parade, Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and other events happening that day. It’s an amazing meditation on the role of sports and media in our culture, showing the both dissonance and the mutual reprocity between our uniquely American celebration of athletic excellence and the underbelly of our celebrity culture and fixation on evil as well as greatness. TV microwave signals literally interfere with one another as too many helicopters show hordes of people rushing onto highway overpasses to cheer O.J. on, as Tom Brokaw cuts in on Bob Costas’ NBA broadcast to provide a live update of the chase.
What’s most striking about the film, however, is the closing pastiche of all those conflicting news events and broadcasts, set to the Talking Heads’ “Heaven” postulating that “heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It’s a haunting association, and suggests that, for all the meaning we might find in sports — all the moral lessons, historical connections, hero worship and daily distraction sports can provide us — even on sports culture’s most memorable of days, nothing really happens. And especially not the next day, when all that’s left is to rehash the same headlines and narratives and give an updated box score from yesterday. We can find fleeting joy and sorrow from the rush of this kind of entertainment, but how much lasting meaning does it bring to our lives?
It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all — the same sports narratives, the same crime stories, a reenactment of the same O.J. Simpson trial — could be so exciting, could be so much fun.
At its best, the first episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson presents a similarly nuanced and complex portrait of the dominant forces in American culture (race, class, gender, celebrity, law, and the media) while also zooming in on the intense personal drama of the characters that played it out on the national stage. And for all of its faults of heavy-handed writing and directing (do we really need A.C. to complain about the traffic on the highway, or for the camera to pan between district attorneys like the Bourne Identity or something?), a daringly-assembled cast turns in the kind of ballsy performances required when performing in the most widely known courtroom drama in the world.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is especially strong as O.J., playing what somebody once described as an interpretation of what a man like O.J. would be like going through a situation like his, rather than a cheap O.J. Simpson impersonation. He’s helped out by going-for-broke David Schwimmer as Rob Kardashian (hey, if O.J. can get a second chance, then Ross certainly deserves one too) and even a Travolta (playing Robert Shapiro) who hasn’t looked like he’s tried this hard since Face/Off.That said, there’s a whole lot of telling without showing in the first episode, from cops narrating their activity and findings while investigating Nicole Simpson’s house to Johnnie Cochran basically lecturing Christopher Darden that America’s justice system is about black vs. white, not right vs. wrong (not that he’s totally wrong here). You don’t need to remind us that O.J. rushed for over 2,000 yards in a season — for those who care they know that already, and for those who don’t that fact is meaningless, especially without providing proper context for how jaw-dropping that was. Mostly it’s just a bummer that, for a show who’s strength is going to be its ability to humanize and present the emotional element of the personal relationships at play in the case, we don’t need to be told explicitly what’s happening during a recreation of one of the most unifying events on national tv.
This show is going to be weird for a lot of reasons, not least of which is David Schwimmer’s raccoon hair’s spot-on resemblance to the real Rob K’s, but I think the weirdest is going to be the experience of participating as modern culture watches and reacts to a recreation of the event that produced so much of our current fraught relationship between race, media, and celebrity. I mean, as if the through lines to #BlackLivesMatter weren’t clear enough, we have a scene of Ross from friends shouting at Cuba Gooding playing O.J. Simpson to put the gun down and not shoot himself in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom.
The O.J. Simpson chase and trial may have been one of the first and most unifying common emotional experiences in our modern media era, and it won’t be the last, but I hope that its dramatization here provides us what we’ve been looking for since the original trial up through Keeping Up With The Kardashians: a real sense of being on the inside of a national drama.
Check in each week for our regular recaps and reviews of The People v. O.J. Simpson, and stay tuned for our upcoming podcast on the show, tentatively titled: The Podcast v. O.J. Simpson.