TV review - The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story

Star power and the remarkable true-life details of the drama can’t keep this new serial from straying into daytime soap territory

Staunch defence: John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding Jr in the opening episode of The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Photograph: FX

Staunch defence: John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Cuba Gooding Jr in the opening episode of The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Photograph: FX

 

“White Bronco, leather glove, Kato Kaelin”. Say that to anyone who remembers 1994 and they’ll say OJ Simpson. It was that big.

The trial of the American football hero turned big-name comedy actor for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman was screened live that summer, every day of it, and became arguably the first example of news packaged and presented as global entertainment. All the protagonists, particularly the lawyers, became stars.

Everything about it was dramatic – making it an inevitable crossover into screen drama and this 10-part The People v OJ Simpson: American Crime Story (BBC Two, Monday) seems timed to feed the current bingeing obsession with real crime, from the Serial podcast to Making a Murderer and The Jinx documentary series.

We’re a TV generation fed on CSI and its forensics-fuelled ilk – and real crime re-enactments flatter us into thinking we are all sleuths now, that we can work out who did it.

Not that The People v OJ Simpson raises any doubt in episode one that OJ is the killer. It is more about setting up the trial which will dominate this series, and it clearly reveals just how much evidence the prosecution had – the timeline, that glove, witnesses, blood – and they still couldn’t get a conviction.

That’s the other challenge for The People v OJ Simpson – keeping momentum because we know how it ends. There’s going to be no spoilers here.

The drama starts HBO-classy by delivering gritty context – with footage of the riots in LA two years earlier following the beating on the street of African-American Rodney King by four police officers, who were then exonerated. That city’s record when it came to law enforcement and black men is laid out.

And then like a switch that’s been flipped, everything about this drama starts to look and sound like an FX daytime soap opera.

Heavyweight headliners

Multi-episode, big-budget TV dramas are magnets for major stars, and The People v OJ Simpson has heavyweight headliners, but it is a tough ask to believe them. Cuba Gooding Jr doesn’t look like or have OJ Simpson’s presence and once John Travolta, camping it up as defence attorney Robert Shapiro, arrives all hope of taking this as anything other than a cheesy romp is lost.

Travolta’s mesmerising to look at – as if his waxwork escaped from Madame Tussauds and got the part. It tough for David Schwimmer – not the actual part of rich, loyal Robert Kardashian, the “Juice’s” friend and soon co-opted onto his defence team – but because, though he looks older, he will never be able to shake off Friends.

What might make this watchable for the remaining nine hours are two characters: Sarah Paulson, strong as prosecutor Marcia Clark who, while all her colleagues were in awe of Simpson’s celebrity, she just saw the crime, and Courtney B Vance as Johnnie Cochran, the man who, with the credibility of his community behind him, could so easily sow seeds of reasonable doubt.

Celebrity and privilege

What is interesting to watch is the exploration of celebrity and privilege – OJ Simpson was known to have been violent to his ex-wife before, but the police simply couldn’t believe that America’s most famous jock, with the public persona of a nice, funny guy, could have killed her.

Also murders don’t, as one character says, happen in Brentwood. And Simpson had the money to hire a team of flashy lawyers – far different from the overworked prosecutors with their bad suits and desk lunches.

Each episode has to end on a cliffhanger and actual events gifted the first a terrific one. When the police come to arrest Simpson, he escapes in his white Bronco - the chase by helicopter and multiple police cars was shown in news bulletins live around the world. It’s a tough ask for a TV drama to improve on that level of real-life drama.

This article has been edited to correct an error in the caption

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