Everyone took a side. Even at 13, I was convinced (as I still am) that O.J. Simpson murdered his ex-wife. The evidence was all there, it seemed to me, and why else would he have run? Ninety-five million of us gathered in our living rooms to watch that white Ford Bronco make a comically slow-paced getaway down the 405. And when the spectacular eight-month-long trial finally resulted in a verdict, I still remember the whole school crowding around a single TV in the library to watch it come in, and my total shock at his acquittal. Ryan Murphy’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which premiered on FX last night, arrives in the midst of a true-crime craze. Our obsession over the guilt or innocence of men like Adnan Syed and Steven Avery provides some outlet for the bitter mistrust of law enforcement bred by the fates of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, and many others. Considering the tensions bubbling over between police and communities of color, as well as our appetite for real-life, did-he-or-didn’t-he stories, a TV series about the biggest case at the intersection of these issues could hardly come at a more appropriate time. Unlike those explored on Serial’s first season and in Making a Murderer, this was a celebrity trial — on a scale not seen before or since (I wasn’t exactly a football fan, but even I had seen O.J. in The Naked Gun). It was a case as much about the privileges of fame as it was about the consequences of color. Even with all the ceaseless news coverage, it practically begged for a proper TV treatment from the start. We spent months imagining, over and over again, what happened the night of the murders, in the Bronco on the freeway, or behind the scenes of the sensational trial. Not to mention that many of the key players were nothing if not perfect fodder for a nighttime soap.
Watching the first episode of Murphy’s series was like picking up an especially twisted novel I’d once read: I remembered the gist but had forgotten all the wacky details. We all know how it ends — and what we think really happened — so half the draw of watching is a hope for some kind of vindication. The other half is a dark, perverse sort of nostalgia — the kind that is right up Murphy’s alley. It also can't be an accident that the cast is populated with actors who came to fame in the '90s.
So, does this TV series think O.J. did it? Well, from the very gripping first episode, the answer seems to be…maybe? Something tells me we’ll be riding this wave of uncertainty through to the end. The series opens with footage of the widespread L.A. riots that followed the police beating of Rodney King just two years before Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were slain. It's a quick, effective way of setting up the climate for relations between the LAPD and the city’s Black residents. We first meet O.J. (an excellent Cuba Gooding Jr.) outside his mansion, where a young, admittedly starstruck driver is waiting to take him to the airport. Only later do we realize that the football star would have killed Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend within the hour, if he is in fact the culprit. A neighbor soon discovers the mutilated bodies at the end of a trail of blood leading to Brown Simpson's front gate. As the police arrive, evidence that will soon be dissected in painstaking detail comes to light: The killer had a cut on his left hand (so does O.J.), one bloody glove is found at Nicole’s, the matching one is outside O.J.’s house, there’s blood on his white Bronco. A giant statue of Simpson in his backyard stops the cops in their tracks. They're struck dumb, faces slack, flashlights aloft. Later, state prosecutor Marcia Clark (a formidable Sarah Paulson) claims the police were swayed by O.J.'s celebrity during their questioning of him, allowing vague answers that they wouldn’t let slide with other suspects.
While he insists on his innocence, Gooding Jr.’s O.J. is also shifty, childish, entitled, and hot-tempered — even maniacal. By the time we see him with a gun to his head moments before he hops into the Bronco and ignites the chase, it’s easy to believe he’s off his rocker, whether he committed double murder or not.
Clark, meanwhile, is being set up as the show’s heroine: She's a single mother of two children with a deadbeat ex, she’s strong-willed, no bullshit, and the best at what she does. Paulson, a frequent Murphy player, is, so far, brilliant in the role. Other noteworthy tidbits: David Schwimmer is playing Papa Kardashian, and every time he calls O.J. “Juice,” it’s impossible to take him seriously (and he does it…a lot). Selma Blair makes a brief first appearance as future momager Kris Jenner, during which she chastises Kourtney and Khloé for horsing around and eating candy at Nicole's funeral. Connie Britton is going to slay as Faye Resnick, I can just tell by the way she pulls down her aviators at said funeral. John Travolta is NOT in fact still in his Edna Turnblad makeup as he takes on the role of lawyer to the stahs Bob Shapiro. But he could’ve fooled me.