This year hasn't been the best for cinema, with a succession of lacklustre films failing to ignite audiences or critics. Television, however, has been a very different story. There’s been some truly exceptional work on the small screen, including surprise hits like ‘Stranger Things’ and superb return seasons of ‘The Leftovers’, ‘American Crime’ and ‘Game of Thrones’ - but perhaps the most surprising event of this year comes from a collaboration between the teams behind ‘American Horror Story’ and cinema classic ‘Ed Wood’. Taking on the ‘Trial of the Century’ in the first instalment of this new anthology series, ‘The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ comes dressed as showy blockbuster television and ends up being a powerful, disturbing and thrilling crime epic that rivals anything we see on the big screen any more.
The ten-part series covers the highly controversial trial in 1994 where football superstar O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) was accused of having killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown-Simpson and her friend Robert Goldman. However, rather than focusing solely on Simpson, the series takes on the wider socio-political ramifications of the trail, seen predominantly through the eyes of the prosecution and defence teams. Developed by screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, it’s an enormous undertaking, involving hundreds of speaking parts, constantly-changing narrative mechanisms and a moment in history where the civil rights of African Americans was at a tipping point, but perhaps the ultimate ace up its sleeve is that, as an audience, you have no idea just how vast this will be until you’re in the thick of it. The series combines the snap and crackle of Alexander and Karaszewski's writing with the visual bombast synonymous with ‘American Horror Story’, but while that style in AHS has become old and obnoxious, here it finds a new and vital energy, amplifying the drama and the tension of an already nail-biting viewing experience. We all know how this story will end, but the journey there, taking on the baffling twists-and-turns, the dangerous machinations and motivations on both sides and the unexpected tragedy of it, all the while balanced on a racial powder-keg, is only amplified by that inevitability. From a technical perspective, it’s a remarkable achievement, from the impeccable production design to the razor-sharp editing to the frighteningly careful direction. It might be flashy and bombastic, but it does so with a fury that only television seems to be able to muster anymore.
All of this makes it no surprise that ‘American Crime Story’ has attracted such an exemplary cast in its first season. As prosecutor Marcia Clark, Sarah Paulson has finally nailed her flag into the ground, delivering a powerhouse performance destined to make her a household name. Just as impressive is Sterling K. Brown as her co-prosecutor Chris Darden, whose quiet and sensitive performance encapsulates the impossibly complicated situation these people have found themselves. The team on the defence is just as memorable, particularly the fire-and-brimstone of Courtney B. Vance as defence attorney Johnny Cochran, who dominates the screen every moment he appears. David Schwimmer is superb as Robert Kardashian, delivering a performance we didn’t know he had in him, and the work of Nathan Lane, Bruce Greenwood and John Travolta equally superb. Only Gooding Jr. seems a bit at-sea with his portrayal of Simpson, but this never seems to matter as Simpson quickly falls into the background of a much bigger and grander story.
The trial of O.J. Simpson was one for the ages, seen as a defining moment in legal history, in the fight for civil rights and the fight against domestic violence, the birth of reality television and the enormous dangers of the court of public opinion. That ‘The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ has been able to capture all of this with such energy and power is an achievement in itself. I was utterly transfixed from episode to episode, swinging between exhilaration and horror. This is what we mean when we say “event television”, the kind that leaves you in awe of what the medium is capable of. Wherever the series goes next, it has one hell of a bar set for itself.
The trial of O.J. Simpson was one for the ages. That ‘The People v O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story’ has been able to capture all of this with such energy and power is an achievement in itself.
PICTURE & SOUND
‘The People v O.J. Simpson’ scrubs up a treat on Blu-ray, which you would expect from such prestige television. The 1080p 1.87:1 transfer is crisp and clear, showing off the show’s gorgeous faded colour palette of browns and oranges. There’s a lot of detail in this series, both in the design and in the performances, and all of that is captured here beautifully. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 track is equally as impressive, especially when it shows off the subtle but intricate sound design created for the show. It’s a surprisingly immersive experience, and benefits from the uncompressed audio.
This series certainly called for a healthy collection of extras, but unfortunately we’re only offered two (albeit excellent) features. ‘Past Imperfect: The Trial of the Century’ (29:00) takes a look at the trial itself, the development of the series and how it was recreated on-screen. Most of the major players are interviewed, as well as reporters who covered the original trial, but the one thing lacking is historical footage from it. A proper feature-length documentary on the series is definitely called for here. The other extra included is ‘Facts of the Case’, a nifty feature that offers you an interactive timeline of the case. Most of the information included is covered in the series, but it does offer a concise opportunity to go through it step-by-step.