Prepare to be obsessed with O.J. Simpson all over again.
Starting tonight at 10 p.m., FX is airing a stellar, uncommonly confident 10-episode adaptation of the infamous murder case. American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson is terrific television in its own right, but it also has the fortune to arrive at the perfect time. When American Crime Story first went into production, its creators couldn't possibly have known it would arrive to an audience of viewers newly obsessed with re-litigating the past, via a string of cultural hits based on real-life murder trials: Serial, The Jinx, and Making a Murderer.
American Crime Story is a docudrama, not a documentary — but it certainly takes its stab at providing the true and definitive story of the O.J. Simpson trial. The series is based on Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life, which is widely regarded as one of the best and most credible nonfiction accounts of the O.J. Simpson trial. "You saw it all, but you don't know the half of it," promises the trailer. In a January cover story, The Hollywood Reporter dubbed the series "The Retrial of O.J. Simpson." And whether you remember the trial or not, each American Crime Story episode is likely to inspire viewers to go down a Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit hole. There's no question that people will obsessively watch American Crime Story and internalize it as The Truth About O.J.
From its first frame, American Crime Story successfully argues that the O.J. Simpson trial was the intersection of two of America's most hot-button issues: race and celebrity. Indeed, American Crime Story doesn't open with the 1994 murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman; it opens two years earlier, with footage of the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed, playing the O.J. Simpson case in the context of Los Angeles' greater history of racial injustice.
When it comes to the specifics of the O.J. case, American Crime Story doesn't pick a side; it merely lays out the cases, in painstaking detail, and lets the evidence speak for itself. Faced with overwhelming evidence of Simpson's guilt, the prosecution gets cocky; faced with the same, the defense gets creative, assembling what was roundly described as a "Dream Team" of high-profile attorneys: Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), and Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance).
Of course, long before Simpson — played here by Cuba Gooding Jr. as a kind of petulant egomaniac — was the defendant in America's most heavily scrutinized murder trial, he was a big name: a legendary football player, occasional actor, and cheery product pitchman. But if Simpson begins the narrative as a celebrity, it isn't long before the rest of the trial's participants join him. American Crime Story's depiction of the toxicity of celebrity comes as people involved with the case, no matter how peripherally, get sucked into the tabloid cycle. Prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, never better) endures near-constant sniping in the media about her fashion, her hair, and her purported failings as a mother. Out for a run on the beach, O.J.'s buddy Kato Kaelin (Billy Magnusson) is flashed by admiring women and attacked by an angry detractor within a span of 60 seconds. We even meet the Kardashians — Kim, Kourtney, Khloe, et al. — who receive an almost supervillainous origin story: Robert Kardashian attempts to negate the effects of their sudden, O.J.-influenced fame by delivering an earnest homily about remaining good people, which clearly falls on deaf ears.
But on the whole, American Crime Story is a generous and multifaceted series; both Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran — long used as cultural punchlines — receive complex, sympathetic interpretations here.
Not everyone is a fan of the show. The real-life Kato Kaelin, who gave up red meat in 1983, has already complained that his on-screen counterpart is depicted eating a hamburger. A more troubling objection comes from Fred Goldman, the father of murder victim Ron Goldman, whose on-screen counterpart bitterly breaks down in one of the series' most heart-wrenching scenes. "A whole new generation who never saw this take place is going to see [American Crime Story] and assume that everything is fact," said the real Fred Goldman. "That's going to become the new reality, and that's very troubling to me."
Should that be troubling to us? It's a difficult question, and I haven't fully settled on an answer for it. I can sympathize with Goldman's reaction to the series, which must feel like a ghoulish puppet-show version of the most painful event of his life. But American Crime Story also overcomes justly cynical expectations by successfully making the case that this trial was important in ways no one at the time could fully understand. Twenty-odd years later, the O.J. Simpson trial remains a vital moment in American history, and it's a relief to see American Crime Story document it with so much depth and skill.
Given that surprisingly nuanced look at American culture, it's no surprise that executive producer Ryan Murphy has lofty social and political ambitions for American Crime Story's future. If the show is renewed by FX — as it almost certainly will be — season two will focus on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, which he calls "a f—ing crime — a crime against a lot of people who don't have a strong voice."
It's a mission statement that also applies to American Crime Story's first season, which is sharp enough to recognize that the O.J. Simpson trial was both a reflection of society as it was and a harbinger of society as it would eventually become.