I expected to be entertained by the opening episodes of American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and I was. A true-crime buff, I wanted to see all the pieces fall into place, from the discovery of the crime to the Bronco chase. I respect Ryan Murphy as a creator—this is the man behind Glee and American Horror Story, after all—and he assembled a fantastic cast that I was sure I could get behind. For a while, at least.
What I was less sure about was how the show would fare in the later episodes—the ones focusing on the courtroom drama. I’m not only usually bored by this kind of television; I was alive and aware of what was happening as this case unfolded in 1994 and ‘95. I heard people talking about it constantly. I saw the footage. I assumed the show would be like little more than a rehash of a real-life tragedy turned into reality TV theater.
I was wrong. And I’m so glad I was.
One of the brilliant things about the first three episodes of American Crime Story is its commitment to giving us this case reflected through a 2016 lens. Before we see the crime, before we even see O.J., we see footage of riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict. The message is clear: What we’re arguing about now, in the age of everything from #BlackLivesMatter to #OscarsSoWhite, is nothing new, and the fact that so many will never be satisfied with the ending of this particular American saga is only further proof of that. This is where the show could get preachy, dull and overearnest in a quest for social relevance, but American Crime Story is, at its heart, a story, and we get to see it told in vibrant, refreshing ways as the people who lived it go to war.
From there, Murphy and company continue to refract this story through the prisms of celebrity culture, sexism, racism and media manipulation. Cuba Gooding Jr., as Simpson, declares in almost every trailer: “I’m not black. I’m O.J.” Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) struggles to balance life as a single mother with the case of her life and is punished for it. The press mercilessly digs for every nugget of dirt, no matter how foul. In episode 2, the young Kardashian children—now some of the most famous people in the world—literally chant their surname, and by episode 3 they’re basking in the fact that their father Robert (David Schwimmer), now a ubiquitous media figure, can instantly get a table at their favorite restaurant.
The fourth episode, “100% Not Guilty,” brings of all of these themes together, but it’s also something more. In dramatizing one of the most-filmed legal proceedings in the history of the American judicial system, Murphy and company have to make it feel fresh, and they do so by staging a game of legal and social chess that’s impeccably acted, superbly shot and instantly thrilling.
On one side, we have Marcia Clark, convinced that she’s going to win because she can get black women on her side, paint Simpson as a batterer and garner their sympathy. On the other we have Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), ready to seize the opportunity of a lifetime, grab the position of lead attorney from Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and present Simpson as a black hero being unjustly put down by the media, the judicial system and the prosecution.
The series, sometimes frustratingly and sometimes brilliantly, doesn’t ever declare its own verdict on O.J. (Shapiro at one point asks his entire defense team “Who here thinks O.J. did it?” with complete sincerity), and that means that while the show runs the risk of being accused of dancing around the central “Is he guilty?” question, for now that ambiguity creates a powerful sense of urgency.
I know this story. But as the two sides face off in this episode, amid swirling cameras and incredible performances, I felt for the first time since the series premiered that I was watching something new. The cast is key to this—Paulson and Vance will likely walk away with well-deserved Emmys—but there’s also the behind-the-scenes politics, from Clark realizing to her horror that black women are not on her side this time to Cochran’s subtle smile when he gets O.J. to declare that Cochran, not Shapiro, will deliver opening statements.
American Crime Story could have been a lurid costume drama that allowed us to gaze in frozen horror at the familiar crime scene, but Murphy and his team are too smart for that. And while there are certainly plenty of knowing winks (see: Travolta’s eyebrows, Paulson’s perm), this is America now reflected through America then. We see it when a jury researcher tells Clark to wear skirts instead of suits and smile more, something women still hear every day. We see it when Cochran explains to the entire legal team that black men have always been victims of systemic prejudice, something we still see every day. We see it when Nicole Brown Simpson’s best friend Faye Resnick (the brilliant Connie Britton), plied with champagne, writes a tell-all book in the service of a tribute, something minor celebrities still do and still profit from. At the same time, the show is happy to deliver us the showman Johnnie Cochran—the one mocked by everyone from South Park to Saturday Night Live for his win-at-all-costs image. Does that diminish that racial message, or does it further serve to illustrate how these issues are marred by celebrity worship, media distortion and a broken legal system?
We’ll have to watch the rest of the show to find out, which is part of why this episode in particular is so crucial. It makes something that happened more than two decades ago feel vital to now. For a long time I feared American Crime Story would lose me when the most well-documented parts of the saga came to light. Turns out it’s just getting started.