Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (September 15, 2016)
When an event gets called the “Whatever of the Century”, hyperbole usually reigns – but not always. The 1995 murder trial of OJ Simpson got known as the “Trial of the Century”, and I find it hard to quibble with that assertion. Who knows what the next 84 years of the 21st century will bring, but unless we enter an alternate universe in which Lee Harvey Oswald goes to court, OJ’s shenanigans qualify as the trial of the 20th century.
A 2016 mini-series called The People Vs. OJ Simpson examines these proceedings. This three-disc set provides all 10 episodes. The plot synopses come straight from the Blu-ray menus.
From the Ashes of Tragedy: “The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman lead the LAPD to the home of OJ Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.)”
As expected, “Ashes” devotes most of its running time to introductions and exposition. That could lead to a “by the numbers” show, but “Ashes” manages to get People off to a fairly rollicking start. It opens the proceedings with a lot of drama and manages to spell out the characters/situations in a lively manner. “Ashes” acts as a strong intro to the mini-series – and I can’t help but snicker when we see the pre-fame Kardashians.
The Run of His Life: “With OJ Simpson missing in the white Bronco, Robert Shapiro (John Travolta) and Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) deal with the fallout, as the DA’s office and the LAPD scramble to save face and find him.”
Good God – OJ and AC in the white Bronco! Ironically, I’d just come home from a viewing of Naked Gun 33 1/3 - OJ’s final pre-murder movie – on the evening all this happened, a fact that made matters just a wee bit more surreal.
Not that the saga needed my personal coincidence to be kooky. OJ/AC in the Bronco isn’t on the “where were you on 11/22/63 or 9/11/01?” level of memory, but it’s up there – it was so bizarre that it stuck in our brains.
“Run” takes this famous event and adds perspective we didn’t have at the time. That seems to be the most significant potential aspect of People: the ability to shed light behind the scenes. “Run” does that well – and offers crackling entertainment along the way.
The Dream Team: “Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) announces that OJ Simpson has been charged. Robert Shapiro seeks advice from F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) and comes up with a provocative strategy. As Shapiro starts putting together the ‘Dream Team’, he must convince OJ to hire Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance).”
Would People feature the Kardashian kids at all without their future fame? Probably not, but who cares? Their presence – and the sly ways the show demonstrates their burgeoning infatuation with fame – becomes a fun runner.
The main aspects of “Team” function well, especially in the way they show the development of OJ’s defense. Looking back, it seems astonishing that anyone thought the strategy would work, so it’s good to see how the tactics came to light. “Team” moves along the series with another solid episode.
100% Not Guilty: “Johnnie Cochran brings an energy that transforms the case. As jury selection gets underway, the prosecution and defense seek out the assistance of jury research experts, who come back with some surprising results. Meanwhile, Faye Resnick (Connie Britton) publishes a tell-all book, complicating the court proceedings.”
While much of People plays the Simpson case for the absurdity/black comedy of matters, it does get serious at times, represented here by the pain of the Goldman family. That offers a necessary perspective – sure, it’s more fun to revel in the insanity, but we need to remember that two people died violently.
That said, People does work best when it hits the bizarreness, and “Guilty” embraces that via Resnick. There’s a name I’d not heard in decades, and Britton’s lugubrious performance adds mirth to the proceedings. “Guilty” pushes along the series well.
The Race Card: “As the trial begins, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and Johnnie Cochran face off in court. Chris has doubts about Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale) as a witness. The jury visits the crime scene.”
As I mentioned earlier, People does favor the glitzy side of the story, but that doesn’t mean it lacks depth. In particular, the series gives Cochran a depth his public persona fails to convey. We tend to view him through the prism of his flashy shtick, and the way Seinfeld’s “Jackie Childs” character parodied Cochran emphasizes this take.
People offers a much more human view of Cochran. Indeed, he and Clark probably get the biggest boost from the series, as the show rescues them from the parodies they became. These moments of depth allow “Card” to deliver a winning program.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia: “As Marcia Clark juggles her home and work obligations, she starts to feel the public scrutiny of her appearance.”
Like I noted in the last section, People does a lot to humanize Cochran and Clark, and as the title implies, this episode expands our understanding of Marcia. In particular, it highlights the rampant sexism she faced during the trial – and given the circumstances of the 2016 presidential campaign, we can see those double standards remain alive and well. I like the emphasis on Clark and find “Marcia” to provide a tight show.
Conspiracy Theories: “Conspiracy theories start to arise around the case. The prosecution debates whether they should have OJ Simpson try on the gloves in court.”
In a case packed with iconic moments, the sight of OJ as he tries on the gloves remains at the top of the list. That scene gives “Theories” its most dramatic bit, but the rest of the show adds intrigue as well. “Theories” pushes along matters in a compelling manner.
A Jury In Jail: “Months into the trial, cut off from their families, society and the media, the jurors grow stir crazy and start becoming unlikely targets for the prosecution and the defense. Meanwhile, the country gets an introduction to the science of DNA evidence.”
All these years later, I forgot how long the Simpson trial lasted. I thought it went for a few months, not the better part of a year.
I like that “Jail” sheds some light on the jurors’ side of matters. It also allows the series’ main narrative to proceed as well, of course, but it’s the view of the jurors that becomes the highlight of this involving episode.
Manna from Heaven: “Johnnie Cochran and F. Lee Bailey head across the country to try to get their hands on the Mark Fuhrman tapes. Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi) must decide whether the tapes – and the racial epithets they contain – are admissible.”
Did anyone emerge from the Simpson trial more loathed than Fuhrman? Probably not, though OJ himself wound up on the wrong side of history as well. “Manna” does nothing to boost Fuhrman’s profile – and it probably put Fuhrman through a fresh round of condemnation.
On the other side, People makes Robert Kardashian look fairly good in retrospect. While all others on OJ’s team care about nothing more than courtroom victory, Kardashian carries the burden of his belief that his friend probably did commit the murder. “Manna” ties together these threads and leads us toward the finale with another strong show.
The Verdict: “The prosecution and defense make their closing statements, the jurors deliberate, and the verdict comes down.”
Almost 21 years later, it remains stunning that OJ walked – though I will admit that this fact seems more amazing in retrospect. At the time, I could understand the nature of the acquittal better than I can now, so time does offer perspective.
Whatever the merits – or lack thereof – found in the trial, “Verdict” brings People to a satisfying conclusion. Even though we know the outcome, the episode packs real tension, and it explores the aftermath in a compelling manner. “Verdict” concludes an excellent series on a high note.