Tuesday, February 23, 2016

REVIEW: 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' - Shapiro and Johnnie Battle to Be Lead Council in O.J.'s Case in '100% Not Guilty'

FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story - Episode 1.04 "100% Not Guilty"

Johnnie Cochran brings an energy that transforms the case. As jury selection gets underway, the prosecution and defense seek out the assistance of jury research experts, who come back with some surprising results. Faye Resnick publishes a tell-all book, complicating the court proceedings.

John Travolta was a huge get for The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. His casting continued to show the level of star power Ryan Murphy is able to attract for his television projects. And now, his performance as Robert Shapiro has been the most divisive thing about the series so far. He has certainly embraced a weird stylistic choice for this portrayal. He's committed to it though. No one can fault him for that. Up until this episode, it didn't really take away too much from the actual story either. But in "100% Not Guilty," there is such a strong disconnect from the words on the page and the way that Travolta is delivering them. This is a big episode for Shapiro as he is forced to step down as lead council on O.J.'s case. But the execution is very wonky namely because the emotional center of Shapiro is very clearly lacking.

Shapiro is not a trial lawyer. He has a reputation of settling his cases. He was able to expertly assemble this team and strategy for O.J.'s case. And yet, he also fully believes that O.J. will be sentenced for this crime. The evidence is just too substantial. They can question everything that the prosecution tries to present to the jury. But it's an uphill battle that may be too much to handle. Settling is easy for Shapiro. He's a man who walks around with confidence. He knows exactly what he wants. He feels comfortable telling his fellow associates on the dream team what to do. He tells Lee that this case is pro bono for him because the publicity will be enough payment. He tells Johnnie that he needs to step aside and let him be in charge of this case. This hour is all about the tide shifting against Shapiro as he no longer represents O.J.'s best interests.

So much of the focus is on the lawyers though. They are the ones who are able to manipulate O.J. into accepting Johnnie as the best chance he'll get out of this situation as a free man. There is so much attention on this case right now. But the story is largely about the difficulties both sides of the law are having in proving their cases. O.J. is almost irrelevant to the whole thing. He's struggling in prison and that's about it. That's as far as this episode delves into his psyche. It's terrific when Johnnie shows up to comfort him in his time of need. He's the only one capable of getting O.J. reinvigorated about life again. Shapiro couldn't deliver a rousing moment like that. O.J. meant something to Johnnie a long time ago. And now, he is returning the favor. Johnnie is promising a reality where O.J. is declared innocent by a jury of his peers. Shapiro is walking into the room late and on a completely different wavelength. A change needed to happen and that violent shift will be huge for this case.

But again, the show struggles when it hinges so much of the emotional weight of this episode on Shapiro. All of this fighting on the dream team is not helping O.J.'s case. He is furious that everyone he has assembled around him isn't falling into line behind him. He wants to be the lead council. But the case has simply gotten too big for him to handle. He acts confidently but is furious whenever someone on the team speaks out of turn. Lee and Johnnie both provide interviews to the press that infuriate Shapiro. He needs to take a vacation just in order to deal with all of the stress at the center of this case. And yet, it's just so weird and difficult to connect with how Shapiro is feeling in this moment. He is losing control of this case that he has worked so hard on. But it's mostly a relief because Johnnie is taking over and that's a much more fascinating character performance in this story.

Another strong character performance in this episode is Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark. She's starting to realize just how public perception is destroying her case. She's doing whatever it takes in order to win. She wants to make sure that the people on the stand give definitive answers and that the jury hears everything about this case. She needs to be forceful because this case is so personal. She is the one fighting for Nicole and Ronald. She's the one trying to get justice for their families. She fully believes O.J. did it and is using all the power of the District Attorney's office to prove it. But that is also making her come across as unflattering. This hour reveals just how strong the racial divide truly is about O.J.'s guilt or innocence. She's also completely unprepared for the harsh words people have to say about her demeanor.

This ultimately is a case about the lawyers. They are the personas who made this case. Johnnie is a charismatic figure who truly and passionately believes the words he is saying at all times. He is in his element. He has fought against the LAPD for systemic racism for years. This is a strategy he can genuinely talk about. He comes across as well-meaning. He knows what he's talking about and is able to get the conversation to shift to whatever he wants the focus to be on. Marcia has the evidence on her side. But that's also very impersonal. She wants to believe her gut that this will be a case decided by the facts and not by emotions. That's where her passion lies. Even though the prosecution tries to one-up the defense by adding their own black man to the team in Christopher Darden, Marcia still believes that intelligence will win out here as she presents all of the details of this case to the jury. It's a complicated situation. Both sides make mistakes that eventually come back to hurt them. But it also makes for quite the compelling drama.

Some more thoughts:
  • "100% Not Guilty" was written by Wally Wolodarsky, Maya Forbes, Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski and directed by Anthony Hemingway.
  • Kenneth Choi makes his debut as Judge Lance Ito, the judge who will preside over this case. He was chosen specifically for this case. He's so excited about it too. And yet, it's only a moment later when the first hint of a complication arises when his wife - an LAPD officer - lingers on Detective Fuhrman's name on the release form waiving any kind of conflict of interests.
  • Faye Resnick also releases her book while the trial is going through jury selection. Both sides get a chance to read it and all the complications that may affect the jury pool. Ultimately, it's not enough to change course - despite being a New York Times bestseller. Also, Connie Britton is fantastic here.
  • This is Darden's chance to really step up and be noticed at the DA's office. Marcia mentions him by name when Gil suggests "adding some flavor" to the team. And yet, he doesn't come onboard until the trial actually starts - even though he could have been needed during the final selection of the jury.
  • The publicity of this case is being dramatized in really interesting ways. That's a key motivator for a number of characters. The jury selection is so large because everyone wants their moment in the spotlight. Meanwhile, Ito and Darden are excited that they were picked to be a part of this case.
  • Marcia is also told that she needs to wear more skirts and change her hairstyle in order to seem less aggressive. That's a concern and depiction of a sexist society that is only going to grow throughout the trial.
  • Courtney B. Vance really is so fantastic in that scene with O.J. talking about how a football game gave him the energy to bounce back in his life and not just wallow in pity. 
  • Joseph Siravo was also terrific as Ronald Goldman's father talking to Marcia about the injustice in the lack of attention to his son's murder. That was a really heartbreaking moment - and the celebrity nature of the case if only going to get larger.