The People Vs. OJ Simpson – Episodes 1-3

The People Vs. OJ Simpson – Episodes 1-3

Over 5 million people tuned into the premier of FX’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson a few weeks ago – a number that pales in comparison to the approximately 95 million people watched the infamous Bronco chase back when this all went down. It is a story that captivated America in the mid-90s, and now just over 20 years later, it is back in news cycles – a true testament to how important this story was to the country. People do not typically celebrate an anniversary of a murder trial.

As this new miniseries continues to pick up steam, it has generally received rave reviews. But some detractors, however, are blasting the show for being too outrageous, or for having exaggerated acting. But there is only one question that can follow that:

What the hell did you expect?

We are talking about, quite literally, the most popular crime in American history and the characters were larger than life. Everyone became a celebrity if they were not already, and many also became a caricature. O.J.’s lead attorney started LegalZoom.com, for crying out loud. The site brags about not being a law firm. Actually.

The one man in the entire case who ended up being convicted – a crooked cop – is a published author and TV personality. The lead prosecutor is also a published author. Everything about the grueling crime has so much glamour as a story. Made me kind of sick just writing that sentence.

But as for the show – it brings so much detail to the surface for a guy my age. I was just barely out of Pampers when it all went down. Additionally, as a white kid thousands of miles away from Los Angeles, there is so much more to this that I could not even fathom. The racial side of the story hasn’t been laid out just yet in the series, but I am very excited to see how that plays out (look at me talking as if this is fiction and we don’t know the end).

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The series will be three episodes in by the time this is posted and the first word that comes to find when trying to describe it is: campy. This show is so damn campy – like you cannot believe these events actually took place because it is so outrageous. It is a story about a double homicide that has a macabre humor behind it: the Kardashian kids chanting their last name at the television or John Travolta playing Robert Shaprio while his eyebrows are set in cement. I have had multiple audible laughs.

The dialogue follows the same theme too. “He’s the Juice, he ran for 2,000 yards!” The script basically squeezes in Simpson’s Wikipedia page into ten minutes of dialogue in the first episode. It is preposterous and over the top, but I cannot get enough of it. I even had to go back and watch ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the Bronco chase. Bill Simmons and Al Michaels spent nearly a half hour talking about it on Simmons’ podcast a couple weeks ago. It is a double murder that still controls headlines two decades later, and it has staying power to last for years beyond this. What a fascinating story.

 

From the Ashes of Tragedy

The first episode hits hard with the racial (over)tone I mentioned earlier, showing clips of the LA riots that took place just a few years before the murder. It sets the stage for a theme in the trial that we do not see for a while. Then we get a glimpse of Cuba Gooding Jr. as the Juice –

Jesus, dude. Think you could hit the gym maybe once before filming? At least when Cuba was a wide receiver in Jerry Maguire he could get away with the body type. This is O.J. Simpson, the 4-time NFL rushing champion (this is probably an actual line in the script). Cuba looks like a JV basketball player.

The way the story is laid out for us when people are not talking in corny sound bites, though, is very intriguing. It takes no dialogue to explain Mark Fuhrman wandering down the alley behind Simpson’s house during the initial investigation, where he happens to find a glove back there. Real convenient to have the other two detectives in the house calling O.J. at the time. The slant on the story from the get-go is certainly an “O.J. did it” angle. That’s probably deserving considering, well… O.J. did it. But no one is clean in this fiasco, and they show that right away with what will eventually be Fuhrman’s perjured testimony.

As the rest of the episode plays out, the characters come out of the woodworks and I would imagine a person much older than myself probably watched and said, “oh I remember him from TV!” This is still new to me, other than folklore on the Internet. I see David Schwimmer as Rob Kardashian and do not automatically connect to how the real Rob was in 1994. Instead my first thought was “I can’t believe Ross Geller fathered Kim, Khloe, and Kourtney.”

Schwimmer is my favorite character so far, though. Kardashian had a weird connection to Simpson because they were extremely close as friends before the trial and it plays out well on screen. O.J.’s kid even calls him “Uncle Robbie” at one point. He is emotionless the whole time, and when you do see him snap on camera, he does it in a car, by himself, with the windows up so that not a single peep is heard. Schwimmer plays a Kardashian role that just does not want to believe Simpson did it. No one did, I can imagine, but no role brings that sentiment out more than this one.

Sterling Brown playing Christopher Darden is going to be fun to watch as well. In the first episode we see the young black prosecutor get chewed out by the legendary Johnnie Corcoran (who somehow seems more rational than everyone else in this show). The racial side of the Simpson story has been presented through his eyes. As a miniseries, it is tough to develop a character – let alone a non-fiction miniseries. But nonetheless, I knew nothing about him coming into this, and now I’m fascinated to see how the lone black prosecutor gets treated for going after the superhero in O.J.

I’m off the rails talking about each character, but that is the main part of episode one – build the story. Then Rob walks into his office to find O.J. writing a few notes and AWAY WE GO. O.J. takes off with good friend Al Cowlings (Malcom Jamal Warner, I love you) in a copycat Bronco as soon as everyone learns that he will be the chief suspect in the Brown and Goldman murders.

None of us were there to know each detail, despite the fact that this crime probably had the largest ever magnifying glass placed over it. Still, even if just for dramatic purposes, I appreciate the attention to detail throughout the episode. Everything down to the 90s heartthrob posters in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom is laid out in minute detail, and in episode two, explaining that Cowlings also owns a white Bronco was helpful to the audience (psycho move to buy your best friend’s car).

Episode two is really where we hit the stride with the story, given that the Bronco chase is one of the most infamous days in modern American history. Regardless, episode one does its job very well in setting us up for the fireworks.

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The Run of His Life

Episode two, named after the novel by Jeffrey Toobin that this show is adapted from, is the big fiasco that we all know the O.J. saga for. The glove was big, the acquittal was huge, but it all started with the Bronco Chase. The attention to detail, as mentioned before, is tremendous throughout the episode. And once again I have to repeat – to those who find this show to be too ridiculous to be good television: this is a true story about a police chase that traveled on an intentionally-cleared highway, well below the speed limit. NOTHING ABOUT THIS IS NORMAL.

The big takeaway from this episode for me is Cuba’s acting, because I am not sure if it is good or not. I want to believe it is, and that is because I can only imagine the sedatives/painkillers/whatever-helps-you-cope-murdering-your-ex-wife that Simpson was entirely consumed by at that time. To be thinking about committing suicide while most likely being medicated will certainly cause a man to laugh, cry, call his mom, call the cops, and put a pistol in his mouth all in three minutes.

So while Gooding’s acting seems random and out of focus throughout, I think that is exactly what he was trying to channel at this point in time. The recent Complex article that claimed it took him “weeks” to get out of the darkness of Simpson’s role may be a tad dramatic – come on dude, you were Radio once. You’ll be okay.

If anyone needs to get crap for brutal acting it is every single prosecutor in the show. Garcetti actually said, to the camera, that Simpson escaping while the warrant was out for his arrest was “worse than the day I had cancer.” WHO SAYS THAT? Once again, we see overly inflated dialogue from the police, but I do not think it ruins the show. I just laugh at it.

While the chase unfolds, and we see the phone calls back and forth between the Cowlings and Simpson in the Bronco and the LAPD, an interesting dichotomy unfolds in Darden’s backyard that continues to build this unavoidable racial divide underlying the murder. This scene is not black versus white though – it is black versus black. It is an emotional argument. This was not a question of whether Simpson was guilty or not, but while Darden watches the chase from his TV on his back porch, the next door neighbors channel frustration about the LAPD sitting up yet another black man for prison.

I cannot imagine that sentiment, and I am not going to try and even dissect it. All I can say is that the disdain for the LAPD had to be so incredibly powerful in order to see a man essentially running from the police while a warrant is out and immediately think that he is the victim. Unreal.

Obviously, as the infamous story about that day unfolds, O.J. comes home, speaks to his mother, and willingly surrenders. It is depressing. Episode two exists in a vacuum – the story of the chase could be a television show by itself. But as we head to the third episode, O.J. is in custody and the defense effort is set to begin.

FILE - In this May 14, 2013 file photo, O.J. Simpson sits during a break on the second day of an evidentiary hearing in Clark County District Court in Las Vegas. Simpson is serving nine to 33 years in prison for his 2008 conviction in the armed robbery of two sports memorabilia dealers in a Las Vegas hotel room. (AP Photo/Ethan Miller, Pool, File)

The Dream Team

The gang is all here now. Shapiro and Kardashian begin to amass the all-star defense team that includes F. Lee Bailey, Alan Dershowitz, and of course, Johnnie Cochran. But before getting there, we somehow get MORE screen time for those damn Kardashian kids.

Look, I understand why Rob Kardashian needs to be the voice of virtue here. He is the most complicated character in relation to O.J. He is the best friend and he has to stand by his side. But to convey that message is so unnecessary through his children. I don’t know how they could have developed this part of the plot, but to use the Kardashian kids just seems so transparent. This episode began with a major roll of the eyes.

What this episode really brought to light, though, is that the O.J. Simpson murder trial was the birth of reality television. The nation took a heinous action and plastered it over every television screen and front page. It was Casey Anthony, George Zimmerman, and Robert Blake all tied into one case. TIME Magazine made O.J.’s mugshot darker, which equaled “blacker.” Marcia Clark’s anger at every potential witness taking television interviews was well warranted too. This case was essentially tried on network television before it even reached the courtroom. And Simpson’s defense attorneys fed the stories. They needed that to happen.

Five minutes of the episode were spent pitting a New Yorker article about Mark Fuhrman against the 911 calls of past domestic disputes at the Simpson household. These are things that normally are not debated before the judge even puts his robe on. The reality of trying to build a case against a suspected killer is impossible when all your evidence is available from coast to coast. The frustration from the prosecutor’s office is shown throughout, to the very last second. We even get a solid F-bomb from Clark on FX!

The emotion that I mentioned in the backyard scenes between Darden and his neighbors in episode two comes back around, as well, when Darden explains to Clark that many black people are on O.J.’s side. This case was emotional from an African-American’s perspective. There was too much pain in their history to see through the haze that Simpson may have actually done it. The prosecution was fighting a battle much bigger than simply a collection of the biggest-named lawyers in America. They were fighting decades of intolerance and racial hostility by their city’s law enforcement. Here’s a hint: they lost that fight.

In the final ten minutes, once Cochran is finally on the defense team, it is clear why he is there. It is now black versus white. No longer is this about “did he do it or not?” And if there is anything I am dying to see in the next episode or two, it is the voir dire process before trial. Cochran tells O.J. (who is now ironically a minor character in the show) that all he needs is just one black juror to get a hung jury. He ended up with nine. The initial jury pool was 40% white and 28% black. Landing that many black jurors is nothing short of impressive, and it obviously played to their advantage. My question is: how the hell did this happen? We will learn soon enough, hopefully.

So there you have it. We are three episodes in and there is a LOT going on. I apologize if this is disorganized, but there is just so much to discuss. I have been trying to dig deeper than just the admittedly corny production and plot line, and look at the legal and racial implications of what went on in this case. This is the most important part to focus on, in my opinion. We know what happened already. It was a bizarre administration of justice, but it happened. Twenty years later, I want to know why, and this show is helping me figure that out.

I am going to be discussing the show weekly up to its culmination. Stick with me if you want. If you don’t want to, I don’t blame you. But just watch The People vs. O.J. Simpson. It is one of the most important criminal cases in American history.

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