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‘People v. O.J. Simpson’: FX series brilliantly explains what the trial meant and why we still care

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays O.J. Simpson in

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays O.J. Simpson in "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" on FX. Credit: FX / Byron Cohen

FX’s hit series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” ends Tuesday (FX, 10 p.m.) and — spoiler alert — the outcome remains the same. On Oct. 2, 1995, the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and Ronald Goldman, 25, was read in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Those events play out precisely as follows on Tuesday night: Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi) asks Mrs. Robertson for the envelope. He opens, glances, puts the paperwork back in the envelope, directs a perfunctory housekeeping question to her, then says: “Awright, Mrs. Robertson . . . ”

She reads the verdict, pertaining to case number BA097211, but not before stumbling ever so slightly on the name.

“Orange,” she says, then corrects herself: “Orenthal James Simpson . . . ”

Meanwhile, history tells us people were watching on TV — about 150 million, per A.C. Nielsen estimates the following day. “TV” was pretty much all we had back in those days, and people “gathered around them” during momentous occasions.

History also tells us reactions were divided. News shots of Times Square tended to capture those: White people were grim-faced. Black people were jubilant.

And now, nearly 21 years later, we have a TV series to explain what all this meant. Remarkably — almost miraculously — this TV series has. “The People v. O.J. Simpson” didn’t rewrite history or challenge history or even offer competing versions of history. It didn’t trot out “lessons” or condemn the participants. There was no “aha” moment over ten episodes, no assurances offered to those denied justice or those who felt justice was served. The cast of players weren’t exonerated either — although Courtney B. Vance’s brilliant portrayal of Johnnie Cochran succeeded most in forcing us, white and black, to think just a little bit differently about his role — and style — through all of this.

Instead, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” accomplished something that TV doesn’t do all that often, and certainly didn’t 21 years ago: It offered a measure of understanding.

TV is most often about heat, rarely about light. The reason is, we want conclusions by the last commercial break. We want bad guys. Good guys. Clarity, then emotional release. TV coverage of the Simpson trial and its aftermath fell into the same trap all those years ago, first suggesting, then demanding and finally promising that the narrative would play by this book, too. Too much time, too much emotion had been invested. Those 150 million wanted payoff. Most of them — or to believe the reports, many of them white — were denied that.

Ultimately — and ironically — “The People v. O.J. Simpson” argues that many blacks would be denied that as well. In Tuesday’s conclusion, Chris Darden — played by Sterling K. Brown, who, like Vance, will surely be nominated for an Emmy — confronts Cochran in the hallway: “This isn’t some civil rights case. Police will keep arresting us. Keep beating us. Keep killing us. You haven’t changed anything for black people here, except for your famous rich friend in Brentwood.” Twenty-one years later, refracted through all that has happened since, the power of that line is very nearly heartbreaking.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” used the artifice of television to deconstruct a trial — an event — that was created by television. While based on a book — Jeffrey Toobin’s “The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson” — only TV was up to this particular task. It’s a fight fire with fire game. You can read all you want. But you still have to see. We’ve been conditioned to that as well.

What we saw here over the last ten weeks were some remarkable performances — all of them, really. Name one, it scored. Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark? A first among equals arguably: She captured Clark’s passion and heart, also released her from a cruel impression that’s lingered all these years, as an imperious prig who didn’t see the train before it was right on top of her.

Vance’s Cochran was another re-evaluation and a valuable one. Vance nailed every single scene, but maybe the finest was that first meeting with O.J. (Cuba Gooding Jr.). His life had fallen apart, he recalled. He liked to have a beer, maybe too many, but then . . . then . . . he saw O.J. run down the field on TV for the 49ers.

“I felt you were running for ME.”

O.J. smiles, recalls: “We won that game.”

Perhaps best of all was Brown. His was a living, breathing human portrait — a man who saw both sides, understood them, but resolved himself to only one. His Darden was wracked, isolated, angry, lonely — and alone. He also stood on the fissure of white and black, or white versus black, and somehow never budged. “Shakespearean” is one of those words that gets tossed around a lot, but Brown’s Darden was Shakespearean.

Like all fine TV series, “The People v O.J. Simpson” was ultimately a journey, which — to paraphrase that famous T.S. Eliot line — would end up where we started from, and there we’d know the place for the first time.

Here’s the obvious truth at the end of this journey: All people are shaped by their life experiences. The “Trial of the Century,” and one Orenthal James Simpson, was the prism or vessel through which millions expressed that experience.

As a series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” was all about perspective, and point-of-view, but also went one important step further. It held to the conviction that only by understanding these various perspectives could a certain measure of healing be achieved.

Healing? That’s not a word often applied to TV, is it?

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