If you were conscious in 1994 and 1995, your first reaction to the new FX miniseries “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” may be, “No, thank you. I lived it.”
I urge you to reconsider.
Before watching (the first six episodes were made available to critics), I was a little bit in that camp. What on earth could they show that we haven’t already seen? There’s an O.J. Fatigue factor to consider (although there’s tremendous buzz about ESPN’s five-part “30 for 30” documentary “O.J. Simpson: Made in America,” which airs in June).
But the FX miniseries, based on the book “The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson” by Jeffrey Toobin and executive produced by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, is fascinating.
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For starters, the casting is brilliant. It has Courtney B. Vance and John Travolta as defense attorneys Johnnie Cochran and Robert Shapiro, respectively; Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark; and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, O.J.’s best friend (and father of the now-famous Kardashian girls). Nathan Lane even appears as attorney F. Lee Bailey and Connie Britton is Nicole’s friend, Faye Resnick. Some of these portrayals are eerily on point, so much that you occasionally forget you’re watching a TV drama instead of CNN footage. Although, make no mistake: this is a dramatization.
Schwimmer was the big surprise for me in many scenes, remarkably convincing as Kardashian, to the point that he seems to have done something strange to his body to achieve the same stocky-muscular build. Vance plays Cochran with authority, which is fitting considering the story portrays him as the only person on O.J.’s defense team who knows what he’s doing. Paulson brings a measure of sympathy to Marcia Clark’s character that I didn’t believe possible. You may hate her in the early episodes – she comes across as both confident and incompetent – but surely you’ll soften by episode 6, which spotlights the sexist attacks on Clark’s appearance and her role as a working mother.
But mostly, the performance I can’t get over is Travolta’s absolutely bananas take on Shapiro. No matter who else is in a scene with him, Travolta is the person your eyes are drawn to. Travolta commits to this, “absolutely 100 percent” (if I may borrow a famous line from O.J.’s “not guilty” plea).
The weak link, unfortunately, is Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. There seem to be two major facets to O.J. Simpson as portrayed here: the inconsolable, sobbing O.J. and the terrifying rage-aholic O.J. And maybe that’s accurate. But in a cast where so many others look, act and sound like the people they are portraying, Gooding’s O.J. takes you out of the experience by achieving none of those things in a satisfying way – at least as far as my exposure to seeing and hearing O.J. speak is concerned.
But even so, it’s not enough to take much away from the overall experience of the miniseries, which does a fine job of capturing the surreality of that uniquely American moment in time.