If asked to imagine a group of talented directors, writers, and actors best equipped to retell the story of O.J. Simpson and his trial of the century—a dream team, if you will—most people wouldn’t immediately draft Ryan Murphy as the steward. Murphy has earned a stubborn reputation as television’s most accomplished enfant terrible, despite projects like The Normal Heart, which show what can happen when his skills with finessing the camera and enrolling actors in his vision are put to good use. In Murphy’s most successful projects, including Glee and American Horror Story, what he does best is invariably obscured by what he does worst. Even actors as talented as Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates find themselves weighed down by Murphy’s writing, which is typically fixated on pop-culture flotsam and fetish play, stuffed with overworked, arch-to-a-fault dialogue, and plotted as soundly as a Ponzi scheme.
There’s also the matter of sensitivity, which Murphy is free to view as a convention of the weak when he’s crafting boorish bon mots for Scream Queens, but becomes a different consideration when telling the story of the racially charged trial following a horrific double murder. God knows how many cheap O.J.-and-the-glove jokes are littered throughout Murphy’s productions, and based on his comedic and narrative tendencies, FX’s American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson has looked like a gestating menace since its 10-episode season was first announced. But for a story with a foregone conclusion, Simpson does feature a surprise ending: Murphy is acquitted on charges of aggravated hackery. As it turns out, the American Crime Story anthology brand doesn’t hurt the show by sounding too similar to ABC’s American Crime. It does so by suggesting the story of Simpson’s trial and acquittal will be filtered through Murphy’s blunt sensibility, when the show is actually far more delicate, nuanced, and nimble than that.
The key difference between Crime Story and Horror Story is Murphy’s role—he produces Crime Story and directs most episodes, but takes no script credits. Simpson was developed and written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who worked from The Run Of His Life, Jeffrey Toobin’s exhaustive account of Simpson’s swift fall from grace. Alexander and Karaszewski don’t start their version of the infamous tale with the discovery of the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, but with stock footage of the Los Angeles riots two years prior. The riot footage isn’t just a grace note, it’s an establishing shot that defines Los Angeles and its powder-keg climate, born of residential and ideological segregation. Simpson’s trial became a grand Rorschach test for a country divided, then as now, about the impact of race, class, and celebrity within the criminal justice system.
Because Simpson’s trial metastasized into a lumbering symbol of American injustice, it’s easy to forget its many moving parts, the three-dimensional people who were reduced to tabloid caricatures. Simpson’s brilliance lies in its ability to fully flesh out people like Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, who today exist in many people’s minds as little more than Wikipedia stubs. Murphy’s muse Sarah Paulson gives the performance of her career as Clark, a tenacious prosecutor who typically sees her emotional investment in her cases as a strength, but gradually learns the appeal of professional distance when she’s thrust into the withering national spotlight. Whereas Clark’s resolve once came from her sense of rectitude, during the trial it comes from her children, the subjects of a bruising custody battle, and Darden (a perfectly cast Sterling K. Brown), who evolves from a third-chair attorney to Clark’s co-prosecutor to something like her common-law husband.
These humanistic insights come courtesy of Toobin’s reporting, which also casts Darden as a proud black man who finds himself on the wrong side of a contentious issue when he opposes Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.), whose blackness is bobby-pinned to him as a means of getting him acquitted. The race-forward strategy is the brainchild of Johnnie Cochran, who becomes Simpson’s most electrifying and seductive character. In the hands of Courtney B. Vance, also at the peak of his talents, Cochran’s masterful strategy isn’t nearly as cynical as history remembers it. This Johnnie Cochran sees O.J.’s case as a divine calling, and he makes a tenacious foe for Clark because he’s every bit as righteous about his quest as she is about hers.
Simpson so skillfully shapes each personality that in just a few episodes, they almost stop being real people and become televisual characters. It feels less like a true-crime miniseries and more like a rich, layered legal drama, and ironically, the fictional patina makes it easier to engage with and invest in a story the audience assumes it knows inside and out. Even the most indelible image of the events—a suicidal Simpson on the run in a white Bronco—seems fresh under the show’s microscope. The story doesn’t roll out exactly how it happened, and while Alexander and Karaszewski get the details mostly right, they don’t shy away from narrative streamlining when it’s called for. But by delicately splitting the difference between historicity and dramatic license, Simpson manages to attain an emotional truth that surpasses what it could have achieved with a just-the-facts approach. The slight diversions from the actual events also make for an interesting meta-commentary on the difference between the facts and the truth, particularly in a trial, where the object is to mold the same facts into wildly different accounts of what happened.
The show also has a lot to say about the American obsession with celebrity, a prevalent theme between the attention-starved antics of key witnesses and Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) and Simpson’s naive certainty that his public image will overpower the evidence against him. The dissection of celebrity is also where the show reveals glimpses of Murphy’s mischievous personality, which comes through when the show keeps checking in on the family life of Simpson’s friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), to find out how a 14-year-old Kim and 10-year-old Khloe Kardashian feel about all this drama. Aside from those moments, which are few and far between, Simpson bears almost no mark of Murphy’s involvement except for his ability to wring the best work out of his actors. There’s not an off-pitch performance to be found, and with cooler heads at the typewriter, Crime Story becomes great in all the ways Horror Story isn’t. What Simpson is capable of may remain a mystery, but now it’s all too clear what Murphy is capable of.