The People v. O.J. Simpson is a television show that practically writes itself. So often I found myself saying, “Wow, I can’t believe that actually happened.” Admittedly, some of the facts were a little fudged to make it even more dramatic for television. Most notably when Marcia Clarks’s partner, Bill Hodgman, collapsed in the court. He actually collapsed behind closed doors in the judge’s office. However, what this show did in spectacular fashion was capture the circus atmosphere that this trial revolved around and not by making the case of O.J. the main subject of the show, but by giving life, and drama, to the main players.
The attention and detail given to the lives of Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Johnnie Cocrhan is something that only a television show could accomplish. As the trial went on for months, you could see the toll it tool on these people’s lives. The show grounds itself not as a court drama, but a personal one. The lawyers were the stars of the show, not O.J., and the show is better off because of it.
Now, before I get into some of the stuff I liked, I need to take a second to talk about the portrayal of O.J. Simpson. As an avid sports fan, I watch athletes all the time and one of the biggest takeaways I have is how abnormal they are in real life. Most of them of muscle-bound living giants, who tower over your average Joe. Simpson, in his heyday, was a strapping 6 ft 1 inch man with the broad shoulders of an NFL running back. If he was in a room of people, you’d notice him. Cuba Gooding Jr.? Not so much. Now, Cuba was solid, if not very good at times, but he is a good 3 inches shorter and no amount of acting can correct that fact. Also, he does not have the body type of an athlete. So, for me, this show would have been better served if they could have casted someone with a similar body type. For a crime of passion and aggression, seeing a bigger, stronger man would have added to the courtroom scenes where Clark and Darden pointed to Simpson’s domestic violence past. But hey, this is only a minor complaint.
The most enjoyable part of this show is the performances from our three main attorneys. First up, Chris Darden, played by Sterling K. Brown. I am not sure how much the show plays up his relationship with Marcia, but boy did it hit. Their chemistry in and out of the courtroom sizzles. Romance or not, they click. And his scenes with Cochran are always off the charts fantastic. Darden’s reserved attitude plays well against the verbose Cochran and makes the outbursts by Darden all the more eye-opening when they happen. And the scene in the finale where he hugs the Goldman family is devastating.
Next I need to talk about Courtney B. Vance. Wow, is he something. You notice him every time he walks into a room, and if you don’t, he will make sure you do. But we all know the type of personality he is, especially in the courtroom, but this show sheds a light on his personal life, which we see has a murky past which he wants to move past, just like the main he is defending. And he lived through injustices as a black man, or at least the show leads you to believe that, which makes the trial almost a personal crusade for him, which it became for many in the black community at the time.
Lastly, Marcia Clark, played by the superb Sarah Paulson. Arguably, she is the star of the show. She is “the people.” So much was thrown at her during the case and she battles through it, head down with her eye on winning the case. From her family, to her hair, to the facts, the media and defense try poking holes in her life. Clark’s life is on display, which from my vantage point, seems unfair. In the final episode, after the “not guilty” verdict was handed out. Clark is in Gil Garcetti’s office, who is the D.A., and she cries, “I’m ashamed.” Months and months this trial lasted and she feels like she failed the victim’s families and we feel the gravity of the solemn situation. Part of the country is cheering, the other is in shock. And if we didn’t feel bad enough for Clark, she reveals to Darden how she was raped in Italy. How she got into law, because she knew that justice and victims deserved a voice. Only, after this case, she lost that spirit and resigned from the D.A.’s office.
This could have been a very different show, if approached differently, and, honestly, considering Ryan Murphy was involved, I am shocked at the sincere approach the show took to this subject matter. Very easily this could have become a soap opera, living on the over-dramatic aspects that made this “the case of the century.” But that didn’t happen often, so when it did, it delivered.
And the fact that we know the ending I think actually helps. We never need to focus on the on if O.J. is going to be convicted or not, so we can examine the details more closely to see how we get to the conclusion. This leads to the shining of some of the smaller details the show lays out for us. My personal favorite being how the white bronco being driven in the infamous car chase is not actually O.J.’s, but rather A.C.’s, because he idolized Simpson to that degree. Wonder how many people actually knew that before.
Last but not least is David Schwimmer’s performance. He deserves a mention, as his performance of Robert Kardashian is a pivotal aspect of the series. His psyche can be substituted for the audience. At least the audience at the time of this crime. At first, he totally backs “Uncle Juice.” There is no way in his mind that he could have done it, but as the case goes on, he becomes less convinced. Schwimmer delivers a great performance as he struggles to back his longtime friend. If he leaved his side during the trial, it would make “Juice” look guilty, even though Kardashian had major doubts, most notably with the overwhelming DNA evidence (like, side note, one piece of DNA evidence was a 1 in 57 billion match to Simpson. How the hell did that not compute with people? Did they not understand numbers in 1995?) But he had to stick it out til the end and it hurt, punctuated by his vomiting in the bathroom sink when the “not guilty” verdict is rendered. Schwimmer is one of those TV actors who will always be known as Ross, but he definitely eased into his role and delivers a deft performance.
All in all, this show capitalizes on its masterful story work. It does not get carried away by the trial. It went small and delivered on the details and on the personal stories of the people involved in the trial and how this trial shaped their lives. It is exciting and, for someone who was too young to understand this craziness when it actually happened, it is enlightening. But even though I was too young to understand the racial tension in 1994 and 1995, the themes and issues are still relevant today, which is a huge reason for this show’s success and why it is an important television show that is worthy of a close re-watch.