The People vs O.J. Simpson

Year: 2016
Creator(s): Scott Alexander, Larry Karaszewski
Starring: Sterling K. Brown, Kenneth Choi, Christian Clemenson, Cuba Gooding Jr, Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, John Travolta
Written by Fiona Underhill

I wasn’t even going to watch this series – my friends saw the first couple of episodes before I did and I wasn’t that bothered or interested. I’d heard a little bit about this “trashy” American mini-series on social media as well and didn’t hold particularly high hopes. However two things intrigued me: for one, it was on the BBC – not usually known for its American imports. Secondly, the casting – once I heard Sarah Paulson was in it, I was sold.

Casting is, without doubt, one of the main strengths of this show. Much has been made of John Travolta’s bizarrely-mannered and elaborate-eyebrowed portrayal of one of Simpson’s lawyers, Robert Shapiro. However, the more you hear or read about the real-life counterparts to each “character”, the more you realise that they really were THAT shallow or THAT over-the- top. David Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian (yes – father of those Kardashians) incredibly sympathetically, as he is torn between his love, friendship and admiration of OJ, and the fact that he is patently guilty. Courtney B. Vance is perfect as Johnnie Cochran – a civil rights activist who spins the entire case on its “race card”. Nathan Lane, Rob Morrow and Evan Handler round out the defence team – each one gloriously be-wigged and each one desperate for the limelight, only concerned for their post-trial reputations.

On the side of the prosecution, you have Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden (it was important for the government to have a black man on their side against OJ) and Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. I have been slightly obsessed with Paulson since she was in my favourite TV series of all time – ‘Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip’ – and she is, without doubt, the emotional centre of this programme. Clark is an ambitious and tough career woman, working all the hours God sends to try to ensure justice for the Brown and Goldman families. She is also the mother of two young boys and going through a divorce, and there are times when the stresses of child-care issues nearly break her (something I can absolutely empathise with). She is also put under intense media scrutiny because of the trial (something the defence lawyers actively court) – including the publication of nude photos and a bizarre obsession with her hair-style. There is even a scene (which really happened) of her buying tampons in a supermarket and the check-out guy joking “Uh-oh, I guess the defence are in for one hell of a week, huh?!”

If there is perhaps one “bum-note” in the casting, it may be Cuba Gooding Jr, as OJ Simpson himself. He just does not have the physical, commanding presence that OJ had in real life; OJ was well over six feet tall, 200 pounds and still very fit at the time of the murders. Having the very small and slight Gooding Jr struggle to try on the extra-large gloves in the courtroom adds even more farce to this low-point in American justice.

The high-point for me was Episode 6, which is simply entitled ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia’ and I don’t mind admitting that I wept through most of it. Another strength of the TV series (which isn’t present in the book by Jeffrey Toobin) is the relationship between Clark and Darden. Although it is fraught at times (it is Darden who makes the crucial error to tell OJ to try on the glove), it is also tender, touching, flirtatious and you are absolutely willing them to get together. You definitely get the sense that Clark would not have made it through the trial without the support of Darden.

Something else that the TV series (and the 460 page book, which I rattled through) does so well is make a thrilling, plot-twisting drama that absolutely hooks you and leaves you desperate to see the next episode. This is no mean feat, when we all know the outcome of the trial. There has been criticism of it being “sensationalist” or “trashy”, but that is missing the point. The trial itself and the man himself were sensationalist and trashy. In an age before 24-hour rolling news, smart-phones and social media, the world was glued to this televised courtroom “drama” as it happened. It was very easy for the audience to forget that two real young people had been horrifically and violently murdered (and in Nicole’s case, after years of domestic abuse). By making Clark the emotional centre, as she crusades for justice for these victims, based on over-whelming DNA evidence (a relatively new science at the time), this programme does try to bring you back to this travesty.

I would highly recommend these 10 hours of extraordinary TV. If you were to “binge-watch” it, I guarantee, you would race through it. It includes some of the best acting I have seen this year, which deserves to be award-winning, and it is absolutely gripping. Do not let anyone persuade you that this is “trash TV” – it was OJ Simpson, the man, who was trash, along with the parasitic lawyers who saw their chance for their fifteen minutes of fame.

Fiona’s rating: 9.5 out of 10
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