April 6, 2016

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Finale Review: “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story”


It’s easy enough to say that the phrase “stranger than fiction” would have had to be invented to describe the murder trial of OJ Simpson if it didn’t already exist, but still, the natural tendency of Hollywood is to gild the non-fictional lily, making melodrama out of drama.  When it was announced that THE PEOPLE V. OJ SIMPSON would be the inaugural chapter of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology franchise, Murphy’s own tendency toward excess in all things made one fear the worst.  But Murphy (who directed several episodes as well as serving as uber-Executive Producer) and the show’s creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski let the intense, incredible, infuriating tale speak for itself, and the result was a model of television storytelling, effortlessly filling 10 hours of screen time (more like a dozen, considering FX’s willingness to let episodes run long) and with so many fascinating facets that it could have gone on longer.  Alexander and Karaszewski understood that there was no need to belabor the ways in which the Simpson trial provided a vision of the future in its breakdown of the line between the personal and public, its concern with issues of race and gender, and its inflation of the cult of celebrity, and that lucidly stating the facts would remove the need for exaggeration.

Murphy’s hugely successful track record allowed Simpson to be produced at a platinum level, and without the need for expensive CG or action sequences, its resources were wisely spent on assembling a spectacular cast.  The members of OJ’s “Dream Team” of attorneys was itself a murderers row (so to speak) of actors.  Courtney B. Vance made a brilliant, complex Johnnie Cochran, both a shrewd, cynical courtroom–and media–tactician and a true believer.  John Travolta’s waxworks make-up as Robert Shapiro was at first off-putting, but the characterization of Shapiro as ultimately a pitiable figure, a master of plea bargains out of his depth and eventually almost ignored in a high-profile criminal trial, brought it together.  Nathan Lane’s casting as F. Lee Bailey seemed like a stunt at first, but his Broadway showmanship turned out to be perfect for the role.  Evan Handler and Rob Morrow were less prominent but excellent as Alan Dershowitz and Barry Scheck.

The heart of Simpson, though, belonged to Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden.  Whatever one can say about some of Ryan Murphy’s creative decisions over the years, he deserves credit for almost singlehandedly positioning Paulson from superb ensemble player to bona fide TV star.  She was extraordinary as Clark, pigheaded and vulnerable, precise and misguided, increasingly desperate as the undercurrents of the trial became a fatal undertow.  Brown, known mostly until now as the male member of the Army Wives spouses group, was a revelation as Darden, whose race put him at the center of all the tangled issues of the Simpson trial, both internally at the DA’s office and for the outside world.  The relationship between Clark and Darden, which the show suggested reached the verge of romance but not quite beyond, was as intricate and satisfying as any male-female bond on television.

The People v. OJ Simpson didn’t all work. There may have understandably been one or two more scenes than necessary featuring the then-young children of Simpson friend and advisor Robert Kardashian (the affecting David Schwimmer), their presence prodding us into making the obvious connection between the celebrity trial and our current pop culture.  In addition, a risky part of the show’s concept was to veer away from defining OJ Simpson himself as a character.  The series indicated its view about his guilt mostly in the storyline of Kardashian, who became increasingly horrified to realize that he no longer believed in his friend’s innocence.  That arc reached its powerful conclusion in tonight’s finale, written by Alexander and Karaszewski and directed by Murphy, when Kardashian couldn’t bear to be present at Simpson’s post-acquittal victory party.  Simpson himself was depicted ambiguously, as a vessel into which all the other characters and interest groups poured their issues, and for that purpose, the role needed someone who could convincingly duplicate Simpson physically and vocally.  Cuba Gooding Jr, although his performance wasn’t bad on its own terms, wasn’t able to provide that, and without having a strongly defined character to play, his presence was often distracting.

On the whole, though, Simpson was endlessly gripping, whether it was devoting an episode to the suffering and tensions among the jurors or detailing every excruciating beat of the ill-fated decision to have Simpson try on the incriminating gloves in court or the horrors of Mark Fuhrman’s views on race.  It was smart and expertly executed, and its retelling of a two-decade old story had all the juice needed to be one of 2016’s major television events.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."