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FX’s Superb “People v. OJ Simpson” Powered By Compelling, Human Performances (Review)

People v OJ [FX]

Key art for FX’s “The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” declares, “you don’t know the half of it.”

The statement is misleading — and that is not a bad thing.

On the surface, the catchphrase suggests the events depicted in the new FX drama will mark a vast departure from the saga that unfolded in the mid-1990s.  Prior to screening the first six episodes, I nervously anticipated such a departure would manifest as one of two forms:

1) The series would center its narrative on largely unknown — and perhaps dubiously supported — anecdotes.  It would be a lesson in what you didn’t know about the OJ Simpson trial.

2) It would invoke heavy literary license, using the real-life individuals and case as a backdrop for an original — and perhaps sensationalized — story, much in the way executive producer Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” works legitimate historical figures into its fictional narrative.

Neither notion was particularly appealing.  And neither is the case.

From a storytelling standpoint, “People v. OJ Simpson” plays it surprisingly straight, generally sticking to the facts of the case, the book from which it is adapted (Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Run Of His Life”) and additional anecdotes, assertions and factoids that emerged over the years (OJ Simpson threatening to commit suicide in a young Kim Kardashian’s room prior to his arrest, for example).  It may inject additional color, context, and emotion into specific scenes and interactions, but it never demonstrates a resistance to what has already been documented of the iconic murder trial.

And insofar as Ryan Murphy is involved as an executive producer and occasional episode director rather than as a lead writer, it functions more as a serialized legal show and grounded docudrama than as a series bearing his typically wacky, if not outlandish creative voice.  This is not “Ryan Murphy’s gimmicky take on the OJ Simpson trial” — it’s “Ryan Murphy’s expert attempt to direct and produce co-creators Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski’s compelling series about the OJ Simpson trial.”

None of this is to say “American Crime Story” is without emotional and creative depth.  It is not to dismiss “People v. OJ Simpson” as a mere re-enactment.  FX’s new drama is very much a creative, richly nuanced, impressively inquisitive inquiry into the case.

It is, however, to say that “People v. OJ Simpson” derives its color — and additional dimensions — from a means more profound and compelling than an aggressively liberal approach to the facts.

It is, however, to say that while “you don’t know the half of it” is a misleading catchphrase, the commercial tag, “You saw the Bronco….but you weren’t in the Bronco” is a fair representation of the series.

Why?

Because “People v. OJ Simpson” concerns itself with the humans associated with the trial of the century.  It uses multi-layered people — not a hollow narrative — to transport viewers back to 1994 and 1995 and into the heads of the case’s major players.  Viewers will gain a new understanding of the case, new appreciation for the individuals involved, and perhaps change their opinions about how the case played out not because they learn all these new things about what happened at the crime scene or in the courtroom but because they get to know the humans that made the case what it was — and very much still is.

Real-time news coverage and retroactive documentaries tell you about people.  “People v. OJ Simpson” introduces you to these people, including their passions, flaws, and internal conflicts.

In doing so, it redraws — and perhaps emboldens — the blurred lines associated with the initial trial.  Showcasing how most of the key attorneys and characters can be simultaneously villainous and sympathetic and arrogant and unsure, it serves to remind why onlookers were consumed with questions far behind whether OJ Simpson murdered Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman or even whether the state did enough to prove he murdered them.

This approach — this emphasis on the humans and mindsets at the center of the OJ case — works because of the utterly brilliant casting and utterly brilliant performances by those cast.  Love them or hate them, Ryan Murphy’s “American Horror Story” installments are famous for allowing remarkable actors to showcase their skills, but the work here goes behind almost anything featured on the horror-themed anthology.

Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson are particularly superb.

Playing Johnnie Cochran, Vance avoids the overplayed caricatures and delivers one of the most nuanced, sincere, resonant performances one will encounter on television.  In embodying (not simply mimicking) every element of Cochran’s famous persona — the extravagance, the arrogance, the showmanship, the humor but also the deep conviction — Vance all but guarantees himself an Emmy nomination.  He also contributes considerably to the show’s brilliance.

Paulson has never been the weak link on “AHS,” but she has never been one of the standouts.  She absolutely is one as lead “American Crime Story” prosecutor Marcia Clark.  Capable of projecting the surface-level abrasiveness — but also the deep-seeded vulnerability — Paulson paints a vivid portrait of a woman at the helm of a case that went should have been infallible but ended up becoming unwinnable.

While Vance and Paulson steal the show, the reality is that nearly all of the performers shine when needed.  The key to that success?  All understand the creative vision.

No, the actors are not universally clear or consistent on tone.  As Bob Shapiro and Faye Resnick, John Travolta and Connie Britton respectively deliver exaggerated, almost tongue-in-cheek performances that would have probably been better suited for the hypothetical “Ryan Murphy’s quirky take on the OJ trial” than the more grounded and sincere “People v. OJ Simpson.”

But tonal issues notwithstanding, their performances are still aligned with the human element of the show.  They may play their parts to extremes, but they still focus on crafting layered people (however wacky) rather than offering imitations or functioning as one-note devices.  They are not shallowly depicting real-life figures but rather offering tangible, relatable, human characters in rough alignment with what we know–and what an astute observer needs to know–of those figures.

The description is particularly apropos for Cuba Gooding, Jr.’s version of OJ Simpson.  He does not deliver a good OJ impression.  He does, however, deliver a captivating OJ interpretation.  He takes the rough OJ Simpson template — with his clashing mild manners and undeniable arrogance — and fashions a character that can exist within the FX series’ universe, connect with the universe’s other characters, and mean something to the audience.

The other performances — the meatier ones like Sterling K. Brown’s take on Chris Darden, the simpler turns like Selma Blair’s Kris Jenner, and all those in between — meet a similar standard and align with a similar approach.  They engage.  They immerse.  They resonate.

Populated by a universe of multi-dimensional, sincere, engaging, real-life characters, “People v. OJ Simpson” does not need additional crutches, extravagances, or risks.  It does need to double down on the conspiracy theories or truth departures because the performers — aided by strong writing and direction — make all of the simple, honest moments count.

Much like any good story — and life in general — the show is not a horizontal exercise.  It can be intense and melodramatic when it needs to be.  It can be light and funny when it needs to be (the Kardashians make for a fun, obvious target in the early episodes).

But it never loses sight of the fact that this is a tale about humans.  Because that is absolutely what it needs to be.

FX’s “People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story” premieres at 10PM ET Tuesday.

Written by Brian Cantor

Brian Cantor is the editor-in-chief for Headline Planet. He has been a leading reporter in the music, movie, television and sporting spaces since 2002.

Brian's reporting has been cited by major websites like BuzzFeed, Billboard, the New Yorker and The Fader -- and shared by celebrities like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Nicki Minaj.

Contact Brian at brian.cantor[at]headlineplanet.com.

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