This week was the premiere of Ryan Murphy’s The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story on FX. This was the first in a 10-part series, and you may be wondering if you should invest your time in watching. I, myself, was in the camp that really didn’t see the point, didn’t know who this was for, or how, based on every ad I’d seen, it wasn’t just a glorified Lifetime movie. I’m willing to admit, though, that I was very wrong. This show is better than it has any right to be. Here are 5 reasons why.
It’s a surreal history lesson.
Obviously this isn’t a documentary, and they do take some liberties, but the show is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1996 book, The Run of His Life, and accuracy certainly seems to be a high priority. It’s a good thing, too, because there’s a whole mess of details that seem too crazy to be true. That craziness, combined with Ryan Murphy’s signature penchant for soap opera-level drama, make accuracy necessary. Knowing that they’re not going overboard with their creative license lets us give ourselves over to the insane story.
This is peak perfect Ryan Murphy.
Ryan Murphy’s biggest fans are also often his biggest critics, usually because if there is a thing you like about his work, you can never count on that thing sticking around long. But this story (though I can only vouch for the first few episodes; hopefully it can last) has that almost cartoonish, stylized gothic soap opera tone that the best seasons of American Horror Story had, that Murphy fans were hoping Scream Queens would have and very much didn’t. This is Ryan Murphy’s version of a Lifetime movie, and that is not at all the insult it should be. If you were one of the many, many people who saw the ads and scoffed, who thought this looked too silly to be real, I don’t think we were wrong. These actors DO look like they’re dressed in Halloween costumes, doing impressions of their 20-years-past counterparts. But Murphy loves to walk that line of satire and cartoon. He loves his actors to chew scenery like their lives depend on it. He very often misses his own mark, but this is a solid bullseye.
This may be redundant after the last point, but I’d be remiss to not give Sarah Paulson her own recognition. Visually, her tight Marcia Clark perm and high-pointed lip liner are almost distracting. They are almost too perfect, like she would definitely win first place at a 90’s-themed costume party. Often in biopics, when this much importance is placed on making the actors look exactly like the real people, the content ends up coming up short. But Paulson (along with the rest of the cast, but she stands out as a real marvel) embraces her almost iconic get-up, to the point of transcending it. Hers is a remarkable impersonation, but with that brilliant, focused intensity Paulson does so well, her performance is nothing short of mesmerizing.
It’s the perfect coincidental companion piece to Making a Murderer.
Dustin wrote a piece last week about the parallels between Steven Avery and Simpson, which I honestly didn’t really understand until I watched it myself. Because these two cases are, obviously, totally different. But with Making a Murderer still in our minds and in our conversations— which Ryan Murphy and his team could not possibly have foreseen when he started planning this show— the connections seem so obvious. Both men’s cases seem to have been less important than the narratives that were created, in one case by the prosecution and law enforcement, and in the other, by the defense. OJ’s case was clouded by fame and the racial contexts of mid-90’s Los Angeles. Avery’s status and family and past actions overpowered any actual evidence (or lack thereof).
The intersection of fame, image, money, and privilege in extreme circumstances is fascinating and infuriating.
In that vein, it is horrifying and fascinating to watch what in a lot of ways looks to be the ground zero for modern reality television. I don’t mean Real World or skill-based or competitive reality TV. I mean fame for fame’s sake reality TV. This is never more obvious than when the little Kardashian kids are running around onscreen, seeing their father catapulted into fame simply for being associated with a famous person’s scandal and tragedy. To also see police bungle elements of their investigation because they’re star stuck, or to (as we’ll see in later episodes) watch Marcia Clark learn what it is to be a woman in the public eye and suddenly learn that, no matter how good you are at your job, or how airtight your case is, if you don’t smile more, the jury will vote against you. It’s all so maddening, and absolutely impossible to not love.