Tuesday, February 2, 2016

REVIEW: 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' - Suspicion Falls on O.J. Following the Murder of His Ex-Wife in 'From Ashes of Tragedy'

FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story - Episode 1.01 "From the Ashes of Tragedy"

The murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman lead the LAPD to the home of OJ Simpson.

The trial against O.J. Simpson for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman is a very incredible story that all of America got to see play out from the courtroom. It was a case that grew in popularity until it captivated the entire country. Now, I'm too young to know how these details played out in real-time. But it's a case that is still so resonant in today's culture. The issues at the heart of this case are still very pervasive in the society of 2016 - the power of celebrity, police brutality, racial profiling, the broken legal system, etc. It's because of these themes that make The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story so relevant in today's world. It highlights just how little has actually changed since the days of 1990s Brentwood where the ex-wife of a famed football legend was found dead.

This first hour rightfully starts with the beating of Rodney King in 1991 and the riots that broke out in Los Angeles that followed. All of that racial unjust filled the air of the time. Even though two years pass before Nicole and Ronald are found dead in her front yard, those issues of race are still a major factor in the framing of this case. O.J. is quickly painted as the prime suspect in these two murders. The show itself does its best to keep things a little bit more open to interpretation. Prosecutor Marcia Clark is able to build a pretty impressive timeline of events that only points to O.J. being the killer. It feels like a slam dunk case for her. That's the perception to the outside world as well. The media is covering this case with enthusiasm because O.J. is at the center of it. They know that O.J. is a suspect in these murders. One cameraman is even able to get him being put in handcuffs on camera. That's a fantastic shot that easily would have made his career. It frames a narrative around the case. The media is only going to become a bigger part of this story. That informs the actions of nearly everyone - for both better and worse.

The world is slowly tightening around O.J. He may or may not have killed his ex-wife and her friend. He's presenting a story that really could go either way. He could have fled the city for Chicago in order to build up his alibi. Or it simply could have been a trip he had planned for. He's cagey when providing any kind of definitive details to the police. They are too star struck by his presence to really do their jobs effectively. O.J. has fame and popularity. Everyone has an opinion on whether or not he did this crime. Even before the details of the case came out, the prosecutors all have an opinion of the man. The men in the District Attorney's office know him as the charming football player and man who has captivated the country with his appealing commercials. Marcia couldn't care less about his professional accomplishments or where he comes from. She's determined to prove that he's guilty because she believes he did it. Her opinion is informed by the details of the case she and the investigators unravel over the course of this hour. But the actions of everyone around her complicate the legal proceedings. Something that she notes many different times as this case becomes more urgent and unreal.

O.J. is at first very cooperative with the police. He doesn't feel like he has anything to hide. And yet, the pressure and emotions of his life soon become very overwhelming. His friend, Robert Kardashian, is trying to look out for his best interests. He's the one who makes sure that O.J. has proper legal representation who will take this case seriously. It's a high-profile case for Robert Shapiro too. He knows how to handle a client like O.J. He gives him the whole speech about doing his best to protect him while he goes through the grieving process. But it's also clear that Shapiro has his work cut out for him with O.J, who is getting increasingly more erratic. O.J. is able to attend Nicole's funeral. It's a somber occasion. In that moment, it really does feel as if he is saying goodbye to the woman he loved. But it's also insane that he was able to go to this event while also being the prime suspect in her murder. Even the guests are speculating on whether or not he actually did it. Plus, O.J. can't pass a lie detector test either. He pretty much fails it, which further frustrates the two Roberts.

But that's only the beginning of O.J.'s captivating spiral. An official warrant has been issued for his arrest. Marcia has started grand jury proceedings in the case. She's moving fast. The defense team isn't quite ready for that. Neither is O.J. who assumed he wouldn't be going to jail because he's a man in grief. Shapiro does his best to help build a defense for O.J. He brings in doctors and photographers to document O.J.'s well being. But it's not one of those people who finds out just how unstable he really is. That falls onto Robert who walks in on O.J. as he has finished his will and letters to his beloved family and fans. He has a gun and is suicidal. It's thrilling to watch as Robert pleads with his friend not to kill himself. Yes, it's pandering a little bit when O.J. wanders around the mansion and eventually winds up in "Kimmie's" room. But it's still so meaningful to get this peak into O.J.'s mindset. He's wrought with guilt over what has happened - whether it was over actually killing Nicole or the grief of her death. And yet, he doesn't ultimately pull the trigger. Instead, he flees. He refuses to go to jail. Shapiro has already accepted that as his reality. O.J. still isn't done living in this world. But fleeing from the police is only going to make this matter worse. All of this was able to happen because the police believed Shapiro would follow through on getting O.J. to surrender peacefully. The optics of the situation could not be worse for the prosecutors. They allowed this to happen. Mistakes like that are going to fuel this case. Right now, the show is presenting how all of them were able to happen while still maintaining a sense of awe and urgency in the storytelling. It's really quite impressive.

The premiere also offers some insight into a number of other players who will eventually become important to the case. Marcia isn't just the prosecutor leading the charge against O.J. Her life is also being dominated by a divorce and raising two young boys. She struggles to be with them and give her life enough time to handle her own problems when this massive case presents itself. Meanwhile, Christopher Darden is pretty much over the illusion of the District Attorney's office. He can't do anything to stop police brutality and making sure that justice is served against law enforcement. In fact, he feels pretty invisible - to the point where he feels like no one would notice if he disappeared. He also looks up to Johnnie Cochran, a more over-the-top and experienced lawyer. The two meet regarding the wrongful death of a black woman shot by the police in the back because nine officers feared for their safety. There's nothing that Darden can do. Johnnie understands that because he knows how the system works. He knows how and when to fight for victims he's passionate about. He also knows his importance as a black attorney. When the O.J. news breaks, he has no problem becoming the news' go-to man for legal coverage. He knows how the optics look. But he also suggests that O.J.'s case is a loser that he'll never work on. These relationships are bound to change drastically in the future as this case only gets more intense and life-changing for all of them.

Some more thoughts:
  • "From the Ashes of Tragedy" was written by Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski and directed by Ryan Murphy.
  • The Kardashian pandering is also apparent during the funeral scene when Kris tells two of her daughters (by name, of course) to stop messing around in the back.
  • Despite that though, Selma Blair and Connie Britton are pretty great as Kris Jenner and Faye Resnick. They are socialites devastated by the loss of their dear friend - even though they have some massive issues as well. Kris and Robert are divorced while Faye has been to rehab.
  • In fact, this whole cast is phenomenal. This episode is a terrific showcase for Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark who gets excited and passionate about this case and Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson when his world is completely changing around him.
  • However, John Travolta's work as Robert Shapiro is very weird. It's a stylistic choice that he is consciously committing to. It's a little bit more campy than his co-stars. That does stand out on the show that plays everything very seriously.
  • David Schwimmer is playing Robert Kardashian as the friend who naively doesn't want his friend to change because of this horrific experience. He's personally attached to this case which is clouding his judgment a little bit. He's not able to take it all in with a level head like Shapiro. But he still has an admirable quality to him as well.
  • Detective Mark Fuhrman knows where O.J. lives because of how frequently the domestic abuse calls have been. And yet, the lack of action in that regard easily concerns Marcia about this case. This could have been avoided if law enforcement was more strict with O.J. from the beginning.
  • It's a chilling final image to see that white bronco start its now infamous journey across Los Angeles.