The People v. O.J. Simpson: Finale Review

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We the jury, in the above and entitled action…

From the outset, we knew The People v. O.J. Simpson had one thing in its favor and one thing that would hinder it somewhat in creativity. The showrunners and executive producers couldn’t deviate all that far from the truth. Sure, there would be some fiction – based on the facts – but the case itself was the case itself. Luckily, they were working with what many believe was the trial of the century, but even if you don’t subscribe to that belief, it was a case with so many twists and extracurriculars that it felt like a television show.

Because the story structure was largely in place 20 years ago, the opening for the series to go off the rails wasn’t really available either, so the success of the show would be based on a few factors. First would be the acting, as the performances and how well the cast replicated what the public remembered from the original trial would be either approval or disapproval. That was the biggest key. If the performers did their thing, much else could be forgiven.

Secondly, how well was the story told? How well were the facts put together to retell this story in as entertaining and addicting a way as was possible given the constraints? And finally, did the series nail its conclusion? Was there more than just the verdict? How effective were the final minutes, when the show placed focus on the aftermath for the key figures of the trial? Was whatever creative license the show employed both believable and satisfactory?

In the case (no pun intended) of American Crime Story, the cast was largely exceptional, the story was generally laid out beautifully, and the finale was superb.

Make no mistake about it, The People v. O.J. Simpson, an idea that could easily have become a train wreck and a television joke, instead concluded one of the best seasons of 2016. While it’s still early in the year, it will be on many top ten lists when December rolls around.

As much praise has been showered upon both Courtney B. Vance and Sarah Paulson — and for good reason — the single most powerful performance may well have been from Sterling K. Brown, because Darden was such an understated personality. The level of aptitude required to hit the right notes with that character and not exaggerate the role was a major undertaking. These three, along with David Schwimmer, are the stars that really carried the series.

You haven’t changed anything for black people here, unless of course you’re a famous rich one in Brentwood. — Christopher Darden

Nathan Lane and Rob Morrow were both great, Bruce Greenwood was solid as Garcetti, and for the most part the entire cast was stellar. John Travolta remains the exception, and much of his finale performance was inconsistent and sometimes astonishingly overdone, which is par for the course for how he played Shapiro throughout the series. He simply wasn’t very good, though his name may still get him an undeserved acting nomination.

And, although we haven’t spoken much about Cuba Gooding Jr. over the last several weeks as the show zeroed in mainly on the lawyers, he shined brightly (and truthfully, he was very good all the way through the series) in the back half of “The Verdict.” This was where he had to channel O.J.’s crumbled psyche and showcase it, utilizing the skill of his colleagues and the writing team. However, we also got to see a few scenes of O.J. recognizing that though he heard “Not Guilty,” his life would never again be the same.

Truthfully, for no one directly involved with this case, very rapidly after June 12, 1994, everyone’s existence was about to experience permanent alteration.

The first half of “The Verdict” focused on the closing statements, which were presented without much glitz. This was the time for the words to set the scene and remind us of what was really on the line in the trial and how the facts and emotion worked for all attorneys, the defendant, and the jury. Clark and Darden spoke from the heart, but also spoke with precise, sharp words that pushed back against the superficiality of the defense. The victims and their families deserved justice, and even accepting the severe shortcomings of Mark Fuhrman, it didn’t change the evidence. He was a misdirection that was used simply to cloud the minds of the jury and keep them away from the crime itself.

When the defendant found out about his wife’s death, he did not ask how she died. Think about that. He did not ask how she died. — Marcia Clark

Johnnie Cochran played to his strategy, which Robert Shapiro would later tell Barbara Walters in an ABC interview, was playing the race card “from the bottom of the deck.” Fuhrman was a piece of garbage who wanted to take down a successful black man simply because he was successful black man. The series showed his eureka moment as he planned out his closing statement and weaved his most famous sentence into the very soul of the Simpson jury. You all remember it well. It rhymed.

Four hours after the deliberations began, those talks were over. The first ballot was 10-2 for acquittal, and the pressure began. The prosecution had failed to make its case and Fuhrman and the LAPD were out to get O.J. Simpson. The DNA didn’t matter, nor did the various stats that showed astronomical, impossible odds of anyone else having committed the murders. Eventually, the “reasonable doubt” won out, and one of the longer trials we’ve ever seen play out on television ended in an amount of time so insanely short it caught everyone off guard, from Ito to both legal teams.

You have a lying Mark Fuhrman, the personification of evil, who found the glove. — Johnnie Cochran

I watched as closely as I’ve watched anything in a long time when it came time for the actual verdict, because I remember so much about that moment of the trial. I wanted to see how many details the show got correct. As the court reporter read the words, she screwed up O.J.’s name. It’s something I’ll never forget. Then, after hearing his acquittal, O.J. began to grin and Johnnie Cochran leaned in, briefly laid his head on the Juice’s back, and forcefully tapped his left shoulder. American Crime Story got both of these things correct. Ito’s phraseology, his tonality, and the reactions of others in the courtroom were accurate.

And, when the jury exited, we see the one juror who turned and raised his fist to O.J. in a sign of solidarity with him before leaving the room. He was the same one who said he would “never, ever” believe the prosecution proved its case. Add to that the guard who wanted Simpson’s autograph on a football for his son and who slipped the info to his football hero that he “doesn’t need to be nervous at all,” and it was disconcerting to say the least.

This entire 66 minutes was just riveting to watch. It was tense, it wasn’t rushed, and the pace and timing of the various flips between the courtroom to the various scenes and file footage of public reaction across the country and in Los Angeles was expertly handled. It’s difficult to imagine much of this episode being done better.

In the back half of the episode, we see Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden receive compassion from Gil Garcetti. We then see Darden break down in the press conference, falling into the arms of the victims’ families, who he felt he had failed. This was another indelible sequence in my brain from the original case. The dialogue between attorneys and friends all clicked for me, even if it might have been a bit simpler than the real conversations for time’s sake. The story of Marcia’s rape by a waiter in Italy when she was a teenager and the way it related to her quest for justice and her loss of faith in the system itself was one of the finale’s heaviest moments, but also one of its strongest.

The Cochran celebration and his belief he had won some kind of giant victory that would resound through the ages seemed appropriate for who the man was, particularly at that point in time. The one that didn’t see the problem in hiring the Nation of Islam and affiliating himself with Louis Farrakhan after he received death threats was a man who saw absolutely everything in his life through the color of his own skin. He was virtually incapable of avoiding race in any and every interaction he had, particularly if a camera was nearby. His sanctimonious “welcome you back to the flock” commentary for Darden was extremely irritating, just as it should have been.

Bobby, thank you. You were always there for me…never doubted. — O.J. Simpson

And, in one of the best portions of the entire series, we see Robert Kardashian finally give in to his doubt and see O.J. Simpson for the person he actually was, regardless of the verdict. Simpson handing him the bible, the Aerostar and the dialogue within the vehicle on the drive back to Brentwood, and finally Bobby leaving the bible behind and walking out of O.J.’s victory party. All of it worked. And here, both Schwimmer and Gooding crushed it. Cuba had to sell a mixture of relief and mental destruction, uncertainty, and shame. He did it.

Perhaps the two best Cuba scenes took place within minutes of each other, as O.J. showers, looks at himself sternly in the mirror, puts on his robe, sits down in his chair, and begins to sob uncontrollably. He pulls it together when his oldest son brings him a new puppy. Then, in the final scene of the series, he walks outside, completely alone, and stands in front of his own statue. In silence, Simpson is in misery. Gooding fires off a facial expression that leaves the impression that this severely damaged, disgusting human being…realizes he’s ruined everything in his life and whatever reputation he might have had. As Christopher Darden said during his portion of the prosecution’s closing statements:

He’s a murderer. And, he’s also one hell of a great football player. But, he’s still a murderer.

This was a terrifically entertaining retelling of a period of many of our lives that remains quite vivid. Those involved should be proud of being associated with it and should be extremely pleased with how it came out, from beginning to conclusion. It will win awards. It may win many. If it does, it’s hard to argue. While it was given a pass on certain things because of the strength of the performances, The People v. O.J. Simpson was an unquestioned triumph for FX.

The Hollywood Reporter has released information from a conversation with executive producer Ryan Murphy, who has already begun to talk about Season 2. I mentioned several other potential trials the show might depict in the future in my initial review of the first batch of screeners. But, I didn’t know that Murphy was going in a completely different direction, and one that I’m not sure is a smart move, though time will dictate the final verdict.

The next season of American Crime Story will focus on Hurricane Katrina. It won’t be on a specific trial, as Murphy believes the storm was a crime in itself and one that affected and destroyed many innocent victims. We don’t know yet how the show will attempt the story, but I’d be surprised if many of the O.J. cast isn’t brought back in new roles for next season. I’ll reserve full judgment until I’m able to see the finished product, but my kneejerk reaction is it’s a huge mistake. It won’t be the same show, and David Simon already covered Katrina with Treme on HBO. What made this work was the continued fascination with the O.J. Simpson trial and with heavily publicized legal proceedings. Had Murphy picked the Scott Peterson case, Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony, or even Bush v. Gore, the shift would be gradual and the acceptance would be much easier.

Instead, Season 2 appears to be an entirely different show. An anthology series is often a worthy concept, but what people have fallen in love with just can’t be part of a show that won’t feature a trial at all and will instead depict the fallout from a terrible natural disaster. It’s a risky move to play around with the format when the first season was so strong and so well received. It might be great, but the lead-up is not going to please a lot of the die-hard viewers of The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Taken as a complete product, this ten episode limited series was great TV. It’s what we love about true crime storytelling and also gave us an opportunity to watch some of the best performances to hit the small screen in a long time. And, the history lesson at the end, showing the real life photos next to the show’s version, was well-done and did tell the rest of the tale, including how many tried to cash in on the trial and why Simpson is no longer on the streets.

The People v. O.J. Simpson, a trial many still roll their eyes about and remember as a circus built on disgracefully exploited emotion and pseudo-celebrity hangers on, sucked us right back in even though we knew exactly how it would end. It’s actually a lot like Better Call Saul in that way, except the story leading to Saul Goodman is up to the creators of that series. Here, even the lettuce and tomato on the sandwich was already in Jeffrey Toobin’s book. Maybe the writers were able to add a condiment here and there.

What could have been a failure was the opposite. American Crime Story captivated with its style and did its subject matter a fine service. It was award-worthy, water cooler-worthy, and applause worthy.

I’m @GuyNamedJason. I’m pretty sure my glove size is also extra large.

Written by Jason Martin