On Oct. 3, 1995, O. J. Simpson was found not guilty of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. Like millions of Americans, I watched the verdict on television. Unlike most of them, I don’t remember any of it — I was six months old, probably dozing in my mother’s arms and certainly unskilled in legal reasoning. Almost all current Yale undergrads are too young to remember the crime and subsequent media circus surrounding Juice (Simpson’s nickname). Wikipedia and YouTube offer a decent overview, but neither quite captures the scale of this national obsession. Cultural history tends to trickle through time in fragments — bits of insider info gleaned from TV documentaries, clickbait headlines and the occasional sight gag on “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Now, 20-plus years after the crime of the century, a new series unpacks our unending obsession with O. J.
“American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson,” an anthology series that premiered last month on FX, is part legal drama and part character study. Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Simpson — a doubly difficult task since he doesn’t let on whether or not Simpson/his character, you know, did it. Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) and his wife Kris (Selma Blair) show sides of themselves never fully explored on the E! Network. Then there are all the people whose names your parents still remember — Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) and Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown).
The real star of the show is Sarah Paulson, who gives Marcia Clark (one of the prosecutors) a rich and nuanced inner life. During the trial, Clark was often maligned in the press, her public persona refracted through the unforgiving (and incredibly sexist) lens of American media. “American Crime Story” gives Clark her due, depicting her personal and professional struggles with riveting depth.
As a work of historical fiction, “American Crime Story” has its fair share of imperfections. John Travolta gives a distractingly strange and inconsistent performance as Robert Shapiro. The tone sometimes veers into soapy melodrama. But on the whole, “American Crime Story” delivers fascinating legal drama and a ridiculous number of satisfying emotional arcs.
There is no shortage of ’90s nostalgia on American TV (and laptop) screens these days. “The Powerpuff Girls” and “Hey! Arnold” are both being rebooted. A “Cruel Intentions” TV show is in development. Netflix just ordered a second season of “Fuller House” (whose existence may well qualify as the crime of this century). But “American Crime Story” does more than just capitalize on a grisly murder or exploit lurid gossip. The series addresses the implications of fame, both for its star-athlete defendant and the many figures thrust into the spotlight during his trial.
“American Crime Story” has turned the media-crafted caricatures of Kardashian, Simpson and others into three-dimensional characters. It considers the influence of race on legal proceedings and broadcast coverage. In focusing on Clark, it examines the sexism pervading American culture, and the very particular impact of that sexism on professional women.
Television has fast become a dominant art form of the 21st century, accommodating new experiments in form, function and genre. “American Crime Story” blurs the line between historical and fictional drama. The second season, currently in development, will focus on even more recent history — the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It may be overblown to declare this series an academic text worthy of peer review and obsessive study. But “American Crime Story” makes a compelling case that television may be the next frontier of important revisionist history.