It’s a bold choice to start out a series with the video of the Rodney King beating and the race riots, but it’s a choice that’s necessary for American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (a title that I definitely will not be typing out in full after this). This first scene in the first episode was put in so viewers can draw parallels from the early ‘90s to our current tumultuous racial climate — especially when it comes to the tensions between police officers and black citizens. It’s a way to draw in the audience, to let us know that this series will be, at times, far more about racial tension than it is about the well-known basics of the O.J. Simpson trial. Because we already know what happened: We know about the barking dog, the white Bronco, and the acquittal. What we don’t know — unless you have heavily researched everything — is what happened outside of the media coverage and speculating articles. What we don’t know, and what remains important, is how race played such a huge role in the “trial of the century” and not just in black and white terms.
This becomes clear early on in “From the Ashes of Tragedy,” in the first scene between Johnnie Cochran and Christopher Darden, two black lawyers who find themselves working on opposite sides in the case. The tension is palpable between the two; I nearly got chills when Cochran ordered Darden to “choose a side.” Those three words speak volumes about the internal conflict Darden is dealing with: He’s a black man who works for the prosecution, and who was just involved in a case centering around police officers shooting a black woman. Again, American Crime Story isn’t subtle about building parallels: Cochran muses that it’s “remarkable how black folks get shot in the backside while they attacking [officers] … going backwards and forwards at the same time.” The police defense has been the same for decades (they claim they felt their lives were in danger; sound familiar?). “The world needs more black men willing to make a difference,” Cochran says, almost immediately softening when Darden talks of his plans to quit. It’s a quietly amazing scene, one that stands out even amongst the larger narrative.
Which brings us to what we’re all here for: O.J. Simpson. To say I was “wary” of American Crime Story is an understatement; to say I’m not a fan of Ryan Murphy is perhaps another. Yet I was more than pleasantly surprised by this series — full disclosure: I watched the first six episodes already, prior to knowing that I was doing weekly coverage, so I’m cheating a bit. What’s more, I was completely enthralled by it, itching to talk about the show with anybody. It helps that Murphy doesn’t have a huge role in the series — he only directs a few episodes and has no writing credits; Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski helm the pilot. It’s strong writing, with attention paid to both the bigger set pieces (the murder scene, the looming O.J. statue in his yard) to the smaller and seemingly inconsequential minutiae (introduction to Marcia Clark’s family, Cochran’s clothing decisions) that mean more than they let on.
“From the Ashes of Tragedy” moves gracefully from O.J.’s late-night trip to the airport for his Chicago trip, to the discovery of Nicole and Ron’s bodies, to how Clark got involved, to the warrant for O.J.’s arrest, to the football star fleeing in that infamous white Bronco. It’s a whirlwind story that’s also slow-building: ACS takes its time pulling in the players that will make up the rival attorney teams. It gently tugs out character details without consuming us with details. It makes you care about characters you didn’t think you would (Who knew I’d have a crush on Kato Kaelin?). The pilot introduces us to O.J.’s flashes of anger (and his pill-popping), Bob Shapiro’s sliminess, Marcia’s ignorance of who O.J. is.
Even Ryan Murphy’s directing is admirable in this pilot, showing restraint when needed. His direction is both smooth and eerie: the overall unsettling feeling evoked by a barking dog and a bathtub full of water; the camera capturing the blood in the cracks of the outdoor tiles before passing over Nicole’s body toward the staircase; the final shot beginning at a low angle of the white Bronco before steadily panning upward to a raised longshot, watching the vehicle urgently yet haphazardly switch lanes while “I Shall Be Released” scores O.J.’s ill-fated escape.
Another element that works in ”From the Ashes of Tragedy” is the setup of interesting themes outside of the case itself. One in particular that stands out is the Hollywood aspect of the whole spectacle, the ways in which the trial resembled an early reality show. One cop remarks that he doesn’t “want a Belushi situation” on his hands, Rob Kardashian foolishly says he’s “on the list” when trying to enter a crime scene. A paparazzo sneaks around the corner to sneak a shot of O.J. over the fence. (Another reference to O.J.’s celebrity that comes into play in the trial: his friendly relationship with police officers, who hung out at O.J.’s house for tennis and swimming parties.)
The most impressive aspect of the first episode is how it gets viewers completely invested in a story that we already know the outcome to. The suicide note is terrifying, even though we know he’s currently alive. By the end, when O.J. flees (as we all know he was going to), it’s still somehow thrilling. It gets under your skin quickly — Nicole’s daughter leaving a message on her murdered mother’s answering machine will haunt me for a while — but it does so in a way that demands further viewing.
- For the most part, the cast is bulletproof. The only weak links, I think, are John Travolta who is doing … something I can’t describe and David Schwimmer who I can only think of as ”Ross Kardashian” while watching.
- There are so many things I didn’t get a chance to mention: the funeral, Connie Britton and Selma Blair’s hats, the whole lie detector scene, how the hell the cops got away with that interview, Kato’s fifth amendment.
- Courtney B. Vance is absolutely unbelievable as Johnnie Cochran and I would like a few of his lines on a motivation keychain: “I like to win. This case is a loser.” “I know you’re capable of more.”
- Also that bit about how Dahmer literally ate people and wasn’t ever seen handcuffs? So good.
- Muppet Babies Kardashian Moments of the Week: Khloe and Kourtney running around the funeral eating candy; a reference to “Kimmy’s” bedroom.
- I love Shapiro’s constant nudge-nudge “Hey, did you do it? You can tell me. C’mooooon” prodding.
- During the last few weeks I read Jeffrey Toobin’s The Run of His Life, which I highly recommend (the series is based on this) and O.J. Simpson’s baffling If I Did It, which is totally insane.
- Drinking game: Drink once whenever someone calls O.J. “Juice.” Drink twice if it’s O.J. referring to himself.