The Trial of O.J. Simpson Offers New Round of Must-See TV

Docudrama miniseries revisits America's most-famous court case.


"The People v. O.J. Simpson," FX

The People v. O.J. Simpson. FX. Tuesday, February 2, 10 p.m.

Trials of the century almost never live up to their billing. They consume us for a few days, then are quickly forgotten, and obscure arcana that we thought would be embedded in our collective consciousness until the sun burns out turn out to be, well, obscure arcana. Anybody out there still remember who Joel Fort was? Or the location of the Au Bar? So it goes with the indelible political and social lessons the trials supposedly teach; hard cases make bad law and worse aphorisms. The rape trial of William Kennedy Smith—oops, spoiler alert on that Au Bar question—was supposedly going to change the way America thought about sexual assault. Instead, it mostly affirmed the widely suspected axiom that unraveling diametrically opposed accounts of the same incident by two hopelessly inebriated participants is pretty much impossible.

The gigantic exception to the rule is the O.J. Simpson trial, two decades past and yet still acidly etched on our brains, as you will surely discover if you watch FX's preposterously engrossing The People v. O.J. Simpson, the 10-hour first season of an anthology series called American Crime Story.

The year-long trial was a collision of America's growing racial divide and its deepening fascination with celebrity. It raised issues about the judicial system's handling of domestic abuse cases. It marked the introduction of the 24-hour news cycle and paved the way for video lynchmistress Nancy Grace and her like. It was an incisive anthropological examination of racism in the Los Angeles Police Department and evolutionary sexual behaviors in West L.A. (remember the "Brentwood Hello"?) that might be coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

And it was, undeniably, first-rate entertainment, a gripping murder mystery peopled with characters drawn from everything from classic Greek tragedy—surely Achilles and Oedipus would have loved to have a drink with Simpson—to Monty Python (hello, Kato Kaelin).

All of the above and much more are present in People v. O.J., a remarkable piece of work that carves muscular narrative lines though the tangled legal thickets of the trial while keeping a delicate touch on the chiaroscuro of its characterizations. If ever there was such a thing as must-see TV, this is it.

A word of caution: What People v. O.J. is not is a documentary. It includes composite characters and invented dialogue and has no qualms about using dramatic license to drive home a point. No prosecutor collapsed with a heart attack during defense attorney Johnnie Cochran's courtroom theatrics. And if Cochran really did tell Simpson at their first meeting, "If we get one black juror, just one, I give you a hung jury," I've never come across it in any of the exhaustive reporting of the case. We're not talking Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter here, but neither is it Court TV.

That said, some of the most seemingly fantastical moments in People v. O.J. are actually genuine. Cochran really did, after partnering in an elaborate and utterly bizarre courtroom kabuki with prosecutor Christopher Darden over who hated the N-word more (both men are black), whisper to him the kill shot: "Nigger, please."

That moment was some of kind of apex, or perhaps nadir, in the racial agitprop that tinged the Simpson trial and functions as the ubertext of People v. O.J. As the show makes clear, nobody had to play a race card in this trial; the subject was inevitable. Los Angeles was just two years past the murderous rioting following the acquittal of four white cops for the savage beating of a black speeder named Rodney King. Simpson himself, a football hero turned business success, was the most famous black man in America, while the two victims (Simpson's ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman, a waiter returning a pair of glasses her party had left at a restaurant minutes before the killings) were white.

People v. O.J. follows both legal teams as they set about manipulating the demographics of the trial jury. The defense angles for as many black jurors as possible; the prosecution, for as many women, confident that gender identity politics would trump those of race when testimony of Simpson's physical abuse of Nicole unfolded. Marcia Clark, the chief prosecutor, also believes she had a special connection to black women, which turned out to be true: "She seems like a bitch," said one in a jury-selection test group after being shown tapes of Cross in action.

Thanks to accounts like New Yorker correspondent Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life (from which People v. O.J. is loosely adapted), it's Simpson's attorneys who in public memory were almost entirely responsible for turning the trial into a race-baiting spectacle. But Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story), who directed most of People v. O.J., and Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (Ed Wood, The People v. Larry Flynt), correctly see race as a weapon wielded by nearly everybody involved in the case, including the press: Time magazine even electronically darkened Simpson's mug shot for its cover to make it scarier to (white) readers, a fact that became manifestly obvious when Newsweek used the same photo, undoctored, on its cover.

About the only post-racial character in People v. O.J. is, ironically, the Juice himself, who initially resists Cochran's attempts to paint the case, literally, in black and white. "I'm not black, I'm O.J.!" he cries at one point. Once upon a time, a wish to be defined by something other than skin color would have been thought quintessentially American, but predictably, it earned Simpson only quiet derision from his own defense team, while prosecutors were confident it could be used against him as a weapon. In one scene, Darden argues with his black neighbors that Simpson isn't one of them, that marrying a white woman and living in the suburbs made him a race traitor. To Darden's surprise, they don't buy it. "He's got the cops chasing him," retorts one. "He's black now."

People v. O.J.'s captivating exploration of the trial's racial dynamics is equaled by its portrayal of the complicated and often prickly personalities on the legal teams, riven by personal jealousies, professional insecurities and ruthless ambition careerism. The most interesting of them is the prosecution's Clark. She's played by Sarah Paulson, part of the repertory company Murphy has assembled for his anthology American Horror Story series. In five seasons, she's played everything from homicidal Siamese twins to a lovelorn junkie ghost and has become one of the most compelling actresses in television today.

Her Clark is an imperious careerist so thoroughly undone by her own arrogance that she actually turns sympathetic. The predatory leer that flashes across her face in the first episode when she's picked to prosecute an American icon has turned by the sixth into wan defeat. Battered by everything from an ex-husband's release of old topless photos to public disdain for her shifting hairstyles, she confesses: "I'm not a public personality."

Across the courtroom, the high-powered attorneys that Simpson calls his "dream team" and who Clark with equal accuracy refers to as "a dozen alpha dogs in a cage match" are hopelessly fractured by disputes over tactics and unchecked egos. The not-always-passive aggression between Cochran (Courtney Vance, Law & Order: Criminal Intent), the baronial Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), criminal defense superstar F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane, The Birdcage) and Harvard scholar Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler, Californication) is an exercise in spectacular bitchery. "I like Alan," says Bailey of Dershowitz. "But he's a smug son of a bitch. Every 15th word is Harvard." Moments later Dershowitz enters the room, and right on cue… .

Caught in the middle is Robert Kardashian (nicely played by David Schwimmer of Friends), a close personal friend of both O.J. and Nicole who believes Simpson could not have committed such a savage act but is tormented by each new piece of evidence to the contrary. He's also appalled by the broad streak of media whoredom that the case uncovers among his friends, who jostle for position with TV talk-shows and cash-for-trash publishers. "In this family, being a good person and loyal friend is more important than being famous," he lectures his young daughters Kourtney and Kim, who apparently that day were playing that old childhood favorite, Opposite Day.