Saturday, 9 April 2016

TV Show Review: American Crime Story - The People v. O.J. Simpson (2016)

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On Tuesday American Crime: The People v. O.J. Simpson went out with a bang. The series penned by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski and produced by the minds behind American Horror Story is set to cover a major American criminal case per season, similar to how AHS tells a differently themed story each year. The ten-part first season, as the subtitle suggest, aims to recreate what Wikipedia calls “the most publicized criminal trial in American history”. As a person too young and also not American to have experienced the enormous fuss surrounding the Simpson case the first time around, I am surely missing some background info to understand every side mark and reference, but I am still going to put my two cents in and review the hell out of this miniseries.

L.A., Summer 1994, only a few years after some of the most severe race riots and police clashes of American history: Meet O.J. Simpson, all-American hero, former NFL star and actor, African-American. And now he could also add main suspect for the brutal murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and waiter Ronald Lyle Goldman to his résumé. Overwhelming evidence against a seemingly well-known model public persona guaranteed a high interest in the case from the start. But the actual media circus surrounding the case no one could have expected. O.J. Simpson was handled with celebrity gloves, which lead to special treatment and the ridiculing of the L.A. prosecution apparatus on more than one occasion (a widely televised low-speed car chase, that interrupted the broadcasting of game 5 of the NBA finals, is only one example). This spectacular case was to become a trial like no one had seen before. The prosecution, with evidence on their side, tried to tackle it straight forward like any other, while Simpson hired a team of high profile defense attorneys, who would do anything to get him off. With live media coverage allowed in court, the murder trial quickly became not about factual evidence, but about who could spin the better story to persuade the jury. Cheap shots on both sides, critical misjudgments, and attention-hungry protagonists set the tone for The People v. O.J. Simpson, which ended in the highly controversial acquittal of the defendant.

American Crime Story’s first season convincingly captures the uproar, chaos, and craziness of the
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O.J. Simpson trial. From the beginning you have a number of different story lines and perspectives crossing, overlapping, and contradicting each other. Each protagonist is presented from a seemingly neutral point of view, but also by interactions with other players in the story as well as their reaction to them. In almost every scene the audience gets to experience the full on force of the media presence – be it through pushing masses of reporters and flashing lights or key witnesses selling out to the tabloids. Therefore, the well-known “highlights” of the trial are also recreated. Authenticity is one thing the show aims for and can rely on real old media coverage to bring home that message.

There is also a manifold of themes addressed in this miniseries, which back in the day ensured that this trial would remain anything but ordinary and charged with emotions and strong opinions. Intentionally staged against the L.A. Riots of the early nineties in the pilot episode, it becomes clear that race and police brutality would be strong factors in the trial as well as the series. Not only are these themes relevant to the everyday lives of many people involved and interested, but they become clear strategies to guide and influence the case. The series also draws attention to the questionable, yet undeniable, privileged status of celebrities and people sacrificing their integrity for 5 minutes of fame. On the other hand, loyalty, false loyalty, and their cost are also main motifs. 

If you binge-watch all 10 episodes in one sitting like I did, you cannot help but be drawn into this circle of convincing chaos that American Crime Story recreates, even if it may have been dramatized a little here and there to strengthen the effect. To me the clean and clichéd division into black and white (both literally and metaphorically) was a bit too much at times, especially considering the murky waters we are treading in the O. J. Simpson case. Still, for viewers, who experienced this surreal spectacle back in the nineties, this must be a bizarre reliving of a guilty pleasure. After all, there are no real spoilers around and suspense comes solely from human interaction and clever writing rather than from actual tension of what’s to come.

The look and feel of the show is very retro, even if the nineties don’t seem like that long ago to most of us still, and even though this is the most hyped decade at the moment (fashion, remakes, …). Even if filmed in HD the coloring and style of what’s on screen reminds me a little of watching an old
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FRIENDS episode. The costume designers and hair and make-up artists did an excellent job of catching the essence and that way-back-when look of the protagonists and also the stark differences between the old, conservative glamour and the nitty-gritty world of the common people – be it the people from O.J.’s old neighborhood, the protesters in the streets or the lawyers employed by the state. The visual separation of sides is not only reflected in the looks of rich vs. poor, but in the style of unfolding and cutting a scene. Private happenings are presented in wide-angle and long-held shots, while the public appearances and hysteria are reflected by quick cuts and close-ups.

A strong plus American Crime Story has going for it is its all-star cast. With ten people scoring starring credits it is obvious that the cast is bigger than in most shows, but every one of these people gets the screen time to shine while developing their respective character during the show as well. Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson is able to equally draw suspicion and sympathy. Rob Kardashian, his friend turned lawyer, is portrayed by David Schwimmer, who conveys desperate, emotional loyalty towards his friend, while still giving the impression of a certain doubtfulness convincingly. John Travolta’s brilliantly egocentric and arrogant Robert Shapiro is a star attorney, who is seemingly more concerned with his image than the success of the trial and subsequently gets debunked from lead defense attorney to mere team member. New leader of the defense team is Johnnie Cochran, portrayed by Courtney B. Vance, who is able to deliver honest and morally upright hostility towards white cops and the legal system, while at the same time revealing an ambivalent attitude towards hard facts in the O. J. case. He turns out to be media hungry and focused on winning no matter the price. 

On the prosecution side Sarah Paulson excels as lead attorney Marcia Clark, showing both her emotional and personal side as well as the determined and fact-driven lawyer who has to deal with a
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bunch of low blows and set-backs during the trial. She is criticized as being too hard for a woman, for not having a good rapport with black people, and for nude photos in the tabloids leaked by an ex-husband. Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) is the second attorney of the prosecution and seemingly the only African American working in the District Attorney’s office. Brown in his performance highlights Darden’s status of someone between the chairs trying to prove himself: as an attorney, to the sceptic black community, as well as to the higher ups in the system. Kenneth Choi portrays Judge Lance Ito convincingly as a star-struck and attention loving player in the Simpson case. Christian Clemenson as William Hodgman, Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti, and Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey complete the main cast. All performances show a willingness to understand and reflect the protagonists in The People v. O.J. Simpson as individuals with distinct personalities, convictions, and motivations outside of the characterizations given to them by the media decades ago.

With American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski have created a phenomenon that not only the American nation is talking about. Walking the lines between true crime drama, 90s nostalgia, and celebrity scandal it certainly gives you plenty to talk about: You can compare the TV show to the real show that happened almost a quarter century ago, reflect once again on whodunit and discuss the performances of the actors. And in a vortex of mimicry and pop culture American Crime Story does not have to hide behind the real deal, which really was as much fabricated as a TV show could ever be. There are outstanding character performances and compelling and dynamic writing. While sometimes oversimplifying and over dramatizing situations, the show stays true to the actual trial and I for one can’t wait to see what case will be tackled in American Crime Story: Season 2.


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