American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson
I am entertaining a love/hate relationship to Brad Falchuk/Ryan Murphy- shows. The super-producers deliver when it comes to production values, casting and concepts, but the content has always been hit and miss, relying too much on controversy while the plots struggle to come to a meaningful conclusion at the end of the season. American Horror Story Season 3 & 4 as well as Scream Queens were serious misfires in my eyes. But, in an unexpected turn of events, the 5th season of AHS, subtitled Hotel, proved to be the best of the whole run and now the first episode of the mini- series American Crime Story (directed by Ryan Murphy) is pretty much the best thing created by the two producers I have seen so far. It was a clever move to leave the development of the series to the screenwriter team Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (also co-producers), who already scripted quality- movies like Ed Wood (1994) and The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) and whose approach is probably a good counterweight to the rampant sensationalism of Falchuk/Murphy.
American Crime Story peruses the same anthology format as American Horror Story, means it will follow a different, unconnected storyline each season, with the difference that in this case the stories are not fictional, but based on true crimes (…yes, AHS is fiction, who would have guessed).
“Starting out small” is not an option: The first season tackles nothing less than the absurdity of the O.J. Simpson trial. Episode one starts with the discovery of the bodies of O.J.’s ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman and ends seconds before the most infamous car chase of TV-history begins. In between, all main players are introduced, from both the prosecution and the defense side.
My own memories of the case and trial are vague and unorganized, so I cannot give a proper assessment of how close the series sticks to the facts. If you feel oversaturated by the O.J. story coverage already, I guess you’d rather stay away, because this show will probably not change your feelings about it. For everyone else who has a penchant for well-realized dramatizations of true crime stories, ACS holds the potential to become compulsory viewing.
American Crime Story owes a lot to David Fincher’s body of work (particularly his movie Zodiac) in terms of look, pacing and tone and it seems as if Michael Mann’s oeuvre might have also served as inspiration. Means, lots of well-written dialogue, slick visuals and no noteworthy drops in the entertainment curve. The acting is pretty good too. Standout performances are delivered by Falchuk/Murphy cast stalwart Sarah Paulson (AHS) as head prosecutor Marcia Rachel Clark and Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochrane, one of the lawyers in O.J.’s defense team. A little underwhelming is John Travolta, who is relying too much on stiff mannerisms, as Robert Shapiro, another lawyer of the defense team. There is sadly one major weak spot in the cast I cannot keep silent about though and that’s Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. himself. Ignoring the total lack of resemblance – Paulson and Travolta don’t look like their real-life counterparts either- he also doesn’t capture O.J.’s mannerisms well. Gooding notoriously has a proclivity for dramatic overacting and it occasionally clashes with the grounded tone of the show. Probably casting him was intended to up the already impressive star power (Bruce Greenwood and David Schwimmer also have parts), but I think they would have done better if they went for a less known, but more convincing actor instead. Actually casting a “nobody” would have also avoided any irritating associations that potentially come with a famous actor – this way, we are distracted by the irrational thought that O.J. might blurt out “Show me the money!” any second.
The series doesn’t shy away from the socio-critical implications of the story -there are allusions to the Rodney King- case and the following L.A. riots of 1992 in the beginning- and this could go into a very interesting direction if they don’t drop the ball and decide to confine themselves to shoving ham-fisted messages into the script, as it is common Hollywood practice. One point some online reviewers complained about is that the now super-famous children of Rob Kardashian (David Schwimmer) are mentioned and even pass through the frame in one scene, as their inclusion could be interpreted as tacky pandering to the reality-TV crowd. I personally think that the showrunners were fully aware that it was inevitable that many people would expect at least a mention of Kim & Co due to the appearance of their father, so they decided to get that out of the way early on (at least I hope so).
Resume: Gripping, slick and well-acted, episode 1 of American Crime Story represents a promising start to a new show that will be my obligatory watch for this season. I for one can’t wait to see what they have in store for the remaining four episodes. Recommended.
PS: I wonder if that Simpson guy really turns out to be innocent? We will see!
Excluding two audio reviews and several republished articles from other sites, this review represents my 50th contribution that was exclusively written for the Supernaughts.
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