It was the trial of the times and even though I was all the way over here in Malaysia, not at all a fan of American football or former sports star Orenthal James Simpson a.k.a O.J. (or “The Juice”), I was glued to the news back in 1995. Athlete turned broadcaster and actor Simpson was on trial for the double murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown and waiter (possibly her lover) Ronald Lyle Goldman in cold blood in June 1994.
The murders were horrific. Brown and Goldman were found dead outside her condo in an exclusive Los Angeles neighbourhood. Brown had been stabbed numerous times in the head and neck and had defensive wounds on her hands. Her larynx could be seen through her gaping neck wound, and one of her vertebrae was also incised. Evidence collected in and around the crime scene pointed to Simpson but for various reasons, he was given “special” treatment before and during the trial.
There were many aspects of the case that were beguiling, not least the fact that despite the seemingly damning evidence against Simpson, the prosecution had a tremendously difficult time presenting their case.
The trial took close to 10 months, after which Simpson was found not guilty by the jury after just four hours of deliberation. The high-profile case drew intense scrutiny and reactions from the public (both for and against Simpson) and created a very tense atmosphere in the city, with police on standby in case riots broke out after the verdict was read.
It was the most publicised trial and a highly controversial verdict – definitely fodder for books (there were several written on the case and related topics) and television.
American Crime Story (not to be confused with American Crime, currently into its second season) is a 10-part TV series detailing the Simpson trial, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run Of His Life: The People V OJ Simpson.
It begins with the discovery of the bodies and charts the arrest of Simpson, the backlash and racial tensions arising from his detention, the prosecution’s complacency in preparing for the case initially as well as the defence team’s various strategies in defending their client.
It is, to say the least, good television. Not to mention the stellar performances by a star-studded cast: from Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr as Simpson to John Travolta as his lawyer Robert Shapiro, Nathan Lane as another of his lawyers, Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian (yes, Kim’s father) who was a long-time friend of Simpson.
Although it comes to us from TV wunderkind Ryan Murphy (renowned for off-the-wall shows like Glee, American Horror Story and Scream Queens), American Crime Story is pretty much a courtroom drama. It’s zany, sure, but only because the case itself was bizarre and unreal. And the series recreates the trial so well that it is as engrossing and frustrating as the actual event unfolded in the public eye day by day.
Although the real-life event was dramatic and amped up from the get-go, this review will focus on how it has been adapted for this TV series.
Take Simpson’s arrest. Oh, wait. Even before that, when police take him in for questioning, he gives vague and incoherent answers, as well as an inconsistent timeline and alibi – and the police let it go simply because he is such a highly respected personality. If you don’t realise what a premium Americans place on their celebrities and star athletes, this will shock you.
And then, when the evidence points to him as a key suspect and the police arrive to arrest him, he disappears. A state-wide manhunt is mounted, followed by a high-speed chase to his home after someone spots him on the highway. And still, the police are advised to handle the by-then suicidal Simpson with kid gloves. It’s unbelievable.
The drama doesn’t end with his arrest, of course. It’s just one thing after another with this case. The defence team comes up with a strategy to question the legitimacy of the evidence, suggesting that it was tampered with. Little by little, his lawyers try every possible method to break down the prosecution’s once-solid case.
Even without the defence’s tactics, the prosecution’s case starts to crumble as their key witnesses tell their stories to tabloids and TV stations for money. It’s simply unbelievable how an almost slam-dunk case for the prosecution suddenly goes south and leaves them scrambling for something to pin on Simpson.
The series is compelling and it may make you want to dig up old reports on the trial because, quite honestly, it seems almost too unbelievable.
The only complaint I have is the performance by the lead. Gooding Jr as Simpson is, to me, a mismatch. He comes across more pathetic than anything else, overacting from the start. Simpson, as I remember him, was more in control and a lot shadier. The same goes for Travolta as Shapiro. It seems too much like Travolta, and not Shapiro, we’re seeing on screen.
Thankfully, the writing is compelling and the story is engaging enough to make the less-than-stellar acting by the two leads – oh, make that three and include Schwimmer too – more of a minor annoyance than anything seriously damaging.
American Crime Story: The People V OJ Simpson airs every Thursday at 10pm on Fox Crime HD (HyppTV Ch 610).