Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is a larger than life story, filled to the brim with bombastic personalities, loaded with salacious tabloid fodder. The trial of O.J. was, at least in a way, responsible for ushering in the reality TV craze, redefining our penchant for true-crime narrative. So it’s only fitting the FX show fills out a cast with easily recognizable personalities in central roles, rather than disguise these central figures with relative unknowns to avoid distraction. It makes perfect sense, and even when you see the likes of Cuba Gooding Jr. and John Travolta chewing scenery, their ham-fisted deliveries work in concert with the subject matter.
This is not an exercise in subtlety, and it shouldn’t be. Gooding is O.J., “The Juice,” and this first episode focuses on the night of the murder, the investigation, and the way the investigation slowly but surely lands at Simspson’s feet. There is the discovery of the body, where we meet Detective Mark Furman, and the chaos that ensued. On the county side, Sarah Paulson absolutely embodies prosecutor Marcia Clark, an angry and eager district attorney whose tunnel vision ultimately unraveled the prosecution’s case. She has it out for Simpson, not because she had any idea who he was beforehand, but because he has been getting away with abuse for years.
Simpson’s friends and his ultimate all-star team of defense lawyers each get their moment in this first episode. We get a few small scenes with Kato Kaelin, Simpson’s pool house leech played by Billy Magnussen with a sharp angle of stoner moron. David Schwimmer is Robert Kardashian, desperate to help his friend because he just can’t believe Juice could do such a terrible thing. Schwimmer plays Kardashian as a tamped down version of Ross, sad-eyed and mopey, but he isn’t a distraction. Courtney B. Vance is Johnnie Cochran, a celebrity lawyer who we first meet in his closet – larger than most two-bedroom houses – trying to pick out a suit for the day. His wife suggests lime green, but he doesn’t think it’s the best choice because he has to go out to Neverland ranch and “MJ is afraid of that color.” Cochran was a shark seeking out fame at every turn, and despite the sensationalism surrounding Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman’s murder, he wants nothing to do with it. Yet.
And then there is Robert Shapiro, Simpson’s lead attorney played here by John Travolta. I don’t know much about Shapiro beyond what we all saw on Court TV, but Travolta is decidedly over the top. He plays Shapiro as an eccentric, flamboyant a little, with a measured cadence and a slightly effeminate disposition. It’s weird, but perhaps Shapiro was that way; I doubt it, however, and it seems this is simply Travolta’s oddball present-day acting shining through. But you buy into it, because the momentum of the show pushes forward and you don’t worry about technique from the performers.
Ryan Murphy’s melodramatic tendencies are on display in The People v. O.J. Simpson, but I can’t imagine a story more deserving of said theatrics. There is no actor disappearing into a role here, it’s big personalities playing even bigger personalities, living on tabloid pages and in the media. For that reason it works. We end episode one with the white Bronco driving erratically down the freeway, so clearly this show isn’t going to let up any time soon.