What was the first reality TV show? Here are a few hints: It stars a Kardashian and a movie star, a car chase, and courtroom drama. It was broadcasted on TV, radio, and covered in every newspaper in the country. It’s a story of racism and a double homicide. It aired all day, like a soap opera, and starred a slew of crazy characters.
It was the story of Orenthal James Simpson, a show that everyone in the world watched slowly unfold over the course of three months. Though it wasn’t exactly reality TV at its inception, that’s what it became. A celebrity as a suspect for a murder brought massive audiences in, and everyone was either rooting for “the Juice” or hoping to see him locked behind bars for the rest of his life. And now, that reality TV show is back. Sort of. American Crime Story, an anthology series produced by FX, investigates the O.J. Simpson case in the form of a scripted, acted TV show that reinvigorates and captures the essence of what made the case so riveting and serves as a reminder of the relevancy of the themes—and results—of the incredible 1995 case.
There are new documentaries and TV investigations airing alongside American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, and it’s clear why—the racial tensions that influenced the verdict of the case are more present than ever in today’s America. This is especially true as the Black Lives Matter movement continues to build momentum and instill a new sense of urgency to eliminate racism once and for all. Even though the Simpson case happened in the 1990s, it just as easily could have happened today.
Speaking as someone who wasn’t even alive during the O.J. Simpson case, it’s easy to see why it was so riveting to so many Americans when it happened. Simpson’s defense brilliantly transformed the case from one about the murder of two people to one about racism—an argument that won them the case. Knowing the outcome of the case doesn’t make The People v. O.J. Simpson any less interesting. The entire situation was so multifaceted that it’s hard to believe that it was all true—from the Bronco chase, to the famous “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” to Mark Fuhrman lying on the stand about using the n-word.
Right off the bat, it’s clear that The People v. O.J. nailed the casting. Every actor is mirrored after their counterpart in real life to near perfection, from David Schwimmer’s hair to Courtney B. Vance’s voice as Johnnie Cochran. The cast is loaded, with Schwimmer playing Robert Kardashian, Simpson’s longtime friend and a member of the defense team; John Travolta playing Robert Shapiro, the head of Simpson’s defense; Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, the energetic head of prosecution; and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson himself. The only real frustration is Travolta’s voice—it’s really, really annoying to listen to his thin, wavering speech as Shapiro.
Cuba Gooding Jr. is incredible as Simpson. He builds the character with a mixture of regret, sorrow, and worry. It’s hard not to feel for Simpson, even though the show opens by building the case against him. Ironically enough, Simpson is far from the main character in the show. Marcia Clark and Robert Shapiro fill much of the screen time, as the case itself is far more intricate than the initial murder itself.
The People v. O.J. is shot with quick, jerky shots—often, the camera will zoom around a scene or just into a particular conversation. It mimics the urgency of the case and the craziness of everything happening so quickly over such a short period of time. The style is a particularly unique way of filming; it’s vastly different from the smooth, simple framing of most TV shows. Though this can make it somewhat disorienting to watch, the cinematography captures the tone of the situation excellently, complementing the attention to detail that each shot captures by invigorating the mood of the scene.
The case remains as relevant today as it did in the 1990s, and the show investigates the causes and effects of the division of races brought on by the case. Two-thirds of the way through the second episode, Johnnie Cochran stands in his backyard at a barbecue, watching other black people in his neighborhood cheering for Simpson as he drives with a police “escort” down the Interstate 405. It’s neither the first nor the last time that people, mostly black Americans, are seen cheering for Simpson.Yet there are very few white people in the same position cheering for Simpson as the case progresses. It’s just one instance of the divide between races over the case, and the start of what would soon become a witch hunt to find racists in the Los Angeles Police Department.
The O.J. Simpson case is back, a tale almost as well-covered (and full of twists and turns) as Donald Trump’s path to the Republican Nomination, a murder case that meandered all over LA and into living rooms around the country. It’s the story of a football player, a movie star, and maybe a murderer. But that’s for you to decide.