'People v. O.J. Simpson' connects dots from L.A. to Ferguson, Baltimore

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The White Ford Bronco. The darkening of O.J. Simpson's face on the cover of Time magazine. Attorney Johnnie Cochran holding up the blood-soaked glove found near the Nicole Brown Simpson crime scene and telling the jury, "If it doesn't fit, you must acquit."

"The People v. O.J. Simpson, a 10-part limited series premiering at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX, will bring it all back — and then some. It's the "then some" part that matters, both at the high and low ends of this talent-packed production.


At the low end, viewers who followed the case in the 1990s are going to wonder how it is that the Kardashians became so crucial to the story of one of the landmark trials of the 20th century, given that the patriarch, Robert, seemed at the time to merely be one of the minor members of Simpson's "Dream Team" of attorneys.

You might actually groan, as I did, when you hear Kardashian (David Schwimmer) lecturing his small children during brunch at La Scala about how "being a good person and loyal friend is better than being famous." He was urging them to be supportive of their "Uncle Juice."


Well, they are reality-TV famous now, aren't they? But you don't skew history to make sure little Kim gets more screen time in hopes of attracting younger viewers.

But as outraged as I get about docudrama that distorts our shared history to suit show-biz dictates, I can live with it here because of what the upper end of this series delivers. For all its gossipy, even silly, TMZ-like tone at times, "The People v. O.J. Simpson" will engage millions of viewers in events that contextualize today's emotionally charged national conversations about police-community relations and race.

This series helps connect the dots from Rodney King and O.J. Simpson to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. And given what an ahistorical culture we have become, maybe the only way to do that and still hold a big audience is with heavy doses of Kim Kardashian, even if she was just an adolescent at the time the events took place.

That context starts with the very first frame, as viewers see black-and-white documentary footage of Los Angeles police officers beating and kicking an unarmed man, Rodney King, as he kneels in the street. The nighttime scene is illuminated only by the headlights of the police cars, giving it an even more grotesque, nightmarish feel.

It's a stunning, brilliantly edited opening montage that then features a news announcer saying that the police officers charged in the beating were found "not guilty." Those words ignite an on-screen explosion of images from the 1992 Los Angeles riots.

It is impossible not to viscerally feel the profound connection between those images from the time and the TV coverage we have been regularly seeing since the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the death of Brown. Seeing the fires and riots of Los Angeles at the start of this series threw me back to April and Baltimore in the wake of the death of Gray.

That's how deep this series reaches into the psyche at those moments when it connects with where we live today. Such moments elevate the production into the realm of TV that matters.

For me, the first hour was the most problematic. It starts two years after the Rodney King riots, with Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) coming out late to his chauffeur-driven limo for a ride to the airport. Meanwhile, a man walking his dog discovers the bloody body of Simpson's ex-wife in front of her Brentwood home.


I admire Gooding's work — so much so that I even liked his performance as Ben Carson in the 2009 TNT docudrama "Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story." But in the first hour, I thought he was over the top in his portrayal of Simpson, to the point where it felt comical at times. Almost everyone in the Simpson household — from football buddy A.C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) to Kato Kaelin (Billy Magnussen) — seemed to be either yelling at the top of their lungs or about to flip out in the first 90 minutes of the series.

But by the time Simpson and Cowlings return from their infamous ride in the white Ford Bronco, the heightened performances start to feel more appropriate. Either that, or I just became accustomed to them — much as your ear adjusts after five minutes of Bernie Sanders' yelling.

By the end of Episode 2, the series finds its emotional footing. And in Episodes 3 and 4, it catches dramatic fire. Part of the credit for that must go to the increased on-screen presence of Courtney B. Vance as Cochran and the arrival behind the camera of Anthony M. Hemingway, who has directed episodes of David Simon's "The Wire" and "Treme." Hemingway was in charge of the third and fourth hours.

Not that the improvement is all the result of Hemingway and Vance. The series is based on the nonfiction book "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson," by Jeffrey Toobin, a New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst. Toobin, one of TV's sagest analysts, chronicled the backstage story of the courtroom battle. So it's not surprising that the film kicks into a higher gear as the so-called "Dream Team" for the defense comes together with the arrival of F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), Barry Scheck (Rob Morrow), Cochran and others.

On the other side, Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) and Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), an assistant district attorney who's riding point on the Simpson case, are cocooned in overconfidence.

I am not that impressed with Paulson or Greenwood here, but their performances are more appealing than that of John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, the lead attorney for Simpson's defense. Travolta went hard-core minimalist in his interpretation, as if he were playing Simpson in a Kabuki theater production — all stiff gestures, short speeches, poses and tight smiles. Yikes. I never felt as if Travolta actually inhabited the character in the early going.


It looks like a slam-dunk conviction of Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife and her friend, Ronald Goldman, until Shapiro comes to understand that the case is all about race. Instead of simply trying to defend Simpson, he needs to put the LAPD on trial for systemic racism. That's where he brings Cochran in to lead the courtroom effort.

There's a jailhouse scene in the fourth hour between Cochran and Simpson that is as good as any dramatic sequence I have seen anywhere this year on TV. Vance is the one driving the bus, but Gooding shows how very good he can be in the presence of greatness. The writing, which deals with themes of race, masculinity, sense of self-worth and TV sports, isn't bad either.

While the overall scripting is inconsistent, when it's good, it's very good.

At one point during the Bronco chase, halfway through the second hour, Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), an African-American attorney in Garcetti's office, is shown at a backyard gathering where he challenges those voicing support for the former football star.

"O.J. never gave back," Darden says. "You see any parks around here named for him, any children's centers? … Once O.J. made his money, he split and never came back. He became white."

"Well, he's got the cops chasing him," one of the O.J. supporters replies. "He's black now."


I covered the media aspects of the real trial extensively for The Baltimore Sun. And one day after writing a piece about the radically different ways that white and black viewers were reacting to daily telecasts of the trial, an editor said to me, "I guess we are not one America anymore, are we? We're a lot of different small Americas now."

We were always a lot of smaller Americas, defined by the histories of the tribes with which we identified. It was just the big white tribe that thought for a couple hundred years that everyone saw the world as its members did.

The O.J. Simpson trial helped us see that in 1994 and '95. In its own uneven way, FX's "The People v. O.J. Simpson" helps us see how we got to where we are today in places like Ferguson, Chicago and Baltimore.



"The People v. O.J. Simpson" premieres at 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX.