REVIEW: People v O.J. Simpson is gripping from start to finish
Who did the BBC sleep with to get this show on BBC Two prime time? Following the success of dramas like Doctor Foster, the BBC has massively stepped up its game and this was proven ten times over last night with the debut episode of new crime drama, People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.
The programme tells the story of one of the most famous murder trials in US history, involving former football player O.J. Simpson and the tragic killing of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. First potential flaw – we know whodunnit. In what was a sensational case at the time, the media published every scrap of information ensuring that – spoiler alert – the world over knows that O.J. walked free.
Luckily, this doesn’t matter one bit.
Gripping from start to finish, the hour long episode passes by in a few rapid heartbeats. The tight tracking shots of police in the opening few minutes allow us to make each grim discovery with them. Knowing what we know, each blood splatter or footprint that we are shown builds a tidal wave of evidence against O.J. It makes his actions all the more shocking.
For my generation (I was 3 at the time of Simpson’s trial), we grew up aware of this story but with no real knowledge of the media furore surrounding the event. The state of a crazed celebrity culture is all too familiar, however, and the constant presence of TV crews and journalists perhaps doesn’t surprise us as much. Remembering that this all occurred before social media and gossip websites (even if we still can’t escape the Kardashians) underlines the absurdity of situation and the intense scrutiny that the the individuals concerned were placed under.
The show opens with actual footage of Rodney King who was famously beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers. The brutal images sparked worldwide controversy due to the blatant racism, heightened by the shocking outcome of the situation: whilst four officers were charged with use of excessive force and assault with a deadly weapon, all were acquitted of their charges.
This powerful opening to the programme sets a precedent: race is a big issue in this case. In a sombre twist, the racial tensions of the time are all too familiar in our current climate. The topical issues of this story have clearly not gone unnoticed by its creators, who include Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy of Glee and American Horror Story fame. Domestic abuse, racism and the insanity of celebrity culture will all play a shining role. However, the slick editing and outstanding performances by the show’s cast cover up any suggestion of an intentionally pushy morality tale being played before our eyes. Instead we are given punchy one-liners and meaningful looks which give us no choice but to reflect on the failings of our own society.
Fans of American Horror Story will recognise the style and aesthetic of the production; the drama comes thick and fast giving your heart rate no resting time. AHS veteran Sarah Paulson takes on the meaty role of Marcia Clark, head prosecutor in the case, and is divine in her portrayal. Like a pit bull with a bone, she sinks her teeth into the notion of O.J.’s guilt and does not let go.
David Schwimmer comes to this show with a difficult task on his hands. He is so recognisable as “Ross from Friends” it can be hard to see past this. With the help of prosthetics he deftly inhabits the role of Robert Kardashian, a great friend of O.J.’s and his defence attorney. Throughout the episode we see his cool and calm exterior crumble as he begins to question the innocence of his dear friend. The panic in his eyes and the sheen of sweat on him in the final instances of the episode are almost moving.
John Travolta plays one of the defence team, Robert Shapiro. After getting over the initial shock of Travolta’s distorted and stretched face (where has Danny Zuko gone?) he is believably natural as the larger-than-life lawyer who can swiftly take command of a room – even if it has O.J. in it.
Cuba Gooding Jr. portrays Simpson as a man on the edge. Erratic and emotional it’s hard to feel any sympathy for him, even when he’s holding a gun to his head. He goes from strong and silent to a crazed frenzy in a matter of seconds. When he speaks he jumps around between weak reasoning and forceful dismissal of his guilt, keeping us hooked on his every word.
Selma Blair and Connie Britton make brief but fantastic appearances as real housewives of reality, Kris Jenner and Faye Resnick respectively. Dressed up to the nines for their friend’s funeral, the pair covertly discuss their views on O.J.’s guilt. I certainly look forward to seeing more of this duo who help to bring some subtle comedy to the show.
(N.B. To see the accuracy of the portrayal, you can see actual Faye Resnick discussing the O.J. situation on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills currently. Old habits die hard).
The genre of true crime is nothing new, but riding on the back of successes like podcast Serial and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, the 10-part People v O.J. Simpson is absolutely hitting the mark. The complexity and intensity of the drama is undercut with a sense of farcical comedy – to a fresh pair of eyes it seems inconceivable that this man could get away with murder. I guess I’ll just have to tune in next week along with the rest of the country. No question about it, I am hooked.
People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story airs on Mondays at 9pm on BBC Two.