How do you take an event that 95 million Americans watched live and make it feel fresh again?
The low-speed police pursuit of O.J. Simpson — which aired live on CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN — is one of the defining moments of the whole sordid O.J. murder trial saga, and probably of the 1990s in general. More than 20 years later, the chase feels almost mythical — a distinctly American variation on Moby Dick, with a white Ford Bronco subbing in for the white whale. A TV producer calls it the intersection of "news, entertainment, and sports," and that still dramatically undersells it.
Time has done nothing to dull the impact of the Bronco chase on American culture. Today, you can easily make the case that this is one of the earliest and ugliest manifestations of a culture that mines real-life tragedies for maximum entertainment — ending, inevitably, with the commodification of the reality TV industry. American Crime Story: The People v.s. O.J. Simpson is bold enough to make that connection explicit, as the snotty Kardashian kids whoop in glee while their dad reads O.J.'s suicide note on national television. (Here's the whole note, if you care to read it.)
The challenge, then, is for American Crime Story to find something new to say about the chase. And against the odds, "The Run of His Life" succeeds. The episode's great narrative trick is how rapidly and confidently it leaps from perspective to perspective, planting seeds and entrenching each side for the legal battle on the horizon.
Most chillingly, we spend some time inside the Bronco, as O.J. sobs and apologizes while holding a loaded pistol to his head. But O.J.'s perspective is just one of at least a dozen. "This is the worst day of my life," grumbles district attorney Gil Garcetti, fretting — perhaps, as it turned out, justifiably — that the embarrassment of the Bronco chase would torpedo his mayoral chances. Robert Shapiro, the defense lawyer who bungled the O.J. handoff in the first place, is similarly self-centered; when he realizes that O.J. hasn't committed suicide, he mutters, "I'm still in the game."
But if Garcetti and Shapiro reveal their vainer and more craven sides, American Crime Story also drops its first major hints about its unlikely heroes, who have each been mocked and vilified in the years since the trial. Watching the chase unfold in real time, prosecutor Marcia Clark reveals her hunger for justice: "I want him to finish this day alive. I want him to pay for what he's done."
But however noble Clark's intentions, she — and, for that matter, everyone else — is far behind O.J.'s soon-to-be defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, who correctly realizes that the trial will hinge on race. When it comes to black people, "police shoot first and offer sloppy apologies afterwards," Cochran laments, channeling the deep-seated frustrations expressed by many of the episode's other black characters, including Chris Darden's neighbors and the bystanders who line up to cheer O.J. on.
But for all his prescience, Cochran isn't right about everything. When the police turn off the helicopter lights beating down on the parked Bronco, Cochran assumes they're trying to avoid being caught on camera as they shoot O.J. to death. "They don't want us to see," he mutters, horrified.
In reality, the police are turning off the lights at O.J.'s behest — the latest in a long string of concessions they've made for the football legend, including the extended window of time that allowed O.J. to slip away in the Bronco in the first place. Celebrity is the wild card in the trial; in ways both subtle and explicit, it's changing the way that everyone is approaching this case.
And while no hour of television could fully capture the enormity of the response to the Bronco chase, the most important moment in "The Run of His Life" may be the one that most easily escapes notice. Between scenes of the SWAT team taking over at O.J.'s Brentwood home and O.J. having a desperate phone conversation with Robert Kardashian, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski make an unexpected jump to an extremely busy Pizza Hut, as a harried employee complains that they've run out of cheese.
It's a moment that could easily be overlooked, or dismissed as a non-sequitur — but a closer examination reveals that the Pizza Hut scene, which arrives directly in the middle of the episode, is no accident. The phone is ringing off the hook because so many people are obsessively glued to their television screens; they want pizza because this car chase is, in some perverted way, another piece of riveting entertainment with O.J. Simpson at its center. It's a canny microcosm for the argument that our collective national curiosity about the O.J. Simpson trial makes us all complicit in its outcome — and given that we're watching a dramatized version of this same event more than 20 years after it happened, how much can we say we've changed?