Friday, April 15, 2016

Inexplicable TV Review: The People vs. O.J. Simpson (and Travolta and Cuba)

Note: Spoilers follow for *snickers* the O.J. Simpson trial.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is way better than it should be, which I feel like is the main note of every review on the subject. So, why should I be any different? I had the same concerns, given the subject matter, and the fact that John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ryan Murphy (Glee) were heavily involved.

However, I should have had a tiny bit more faith because of some of the other people in starring roles, namely, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. They do an incredible job elevating what could be hammy roles into something much better, in stark contrast to Travolta as Robert Shapiro. The other acting issue is Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson. He gets better as the series goes on, with the highlight being the vapid fakeness he displays in a post-trial party, but he lacks the physicality of OJ. The Juice was 6’1” and 212, according to the Googles, whereas Cuba is 5’10” and 172.

I first saw Vance in this little indie television series, Law and Order: Criminal Intent. He played assistant district attorney Ron Carver for the first five seasons, and made 111 appearances in the series’ 10-season run, tied for third behind only Eames (Kathryn Erbe) and Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio). The whole time, he was basically playing a more-reserved Cochran, and he was one of the highlights of Criminal Intent. So, if you like this OJ mini-series, you definitely need to circle back to check out Criminal Intent.

Paulson has been putting in decent TV and movie work since the late 1990s, although I first encountered her during one of her many appearances on The Late Late Show With Craig Ferguson. (They joke about how often she guests during this interview, and god, it makes me miss Craig. “I’ve been vegan for three weeks, except on Saturday, I had a steak.”) She’s incredible as Marcia Clark, making you feel for a woman as she essentially gets her personal and professional lives shredded during the length of the trial.

If the show has “heroes,” then they’d be Clark, Cochrane and, surprisingly, Robert Kardashian as played by David Schwimmer. While Ross from Friends does get whiny at points, he does a good job of playing a genuine friend of Simpson that gradually decays as he learns more facts. The series got flack for scenes that include the Kardashian children, but it’s pretty hard not to draw a line from Robert’s central role in the Simpson trial to the family’s later playing of the media and celebrity status like a fiddle.

Other good performances on the prosecution / judge side: Sterling K. Brown as the conflicted Chris Darden, Kenneth Choi as Lance Ito, Bruce Greenwood as Gil Garcetti. At various points, all three get overwhelmed by the defense Dream Team and media coverage. For the defense team, obviously Vance and Travolta get top billing, but Nathan Lane is a great third wheel as folksy F. Lee Bailey. The cast is rounded out by “oh hey, that person!” stunt and cameo casting – Malcolm-Jamal Warner as A.C., Larry King as himself, Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, Jordana Brewster as Denise Brown, Selma Blair as Kris Jenner.

While this first season was incredible, I’m worried about the show’s second season already, which is supposed to be about New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. This one is supposed to be heavier with Ryan Murphy’s contributions, and he can be incredibly hit-or-miss for me. It just feels like the show is setting itself for a fall like Serial or True Detective season two, by biting off more than it can chew.

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