American Crime Story Assembles The Dream Team With Maximum Self-Consciousness
The third episode introduces more of the players and many of the issues in The People v. OJ Simpson -- awkwardly.
"The Dream Team" is the first time that I felt about American Crime Story the way our esteemed colleague Linda Holmes did after a handful of episodes: like I was watching a Wikipedia entry or a book report. A flawlessly cast and production-designed book report, mind you -- I still can't get over how perfectly Wardrobe understands that even extremely expensive suits managed to look cheap and badly made for the duration of Clinton's presidency -- but still primarily concerned with ticking various plot and issues boxes.
Such a huge case, with so many larger-than-life personalities thrown together under such incredible circumstances, at a volcanic time for race relations...everything about the case, every evidentiary motion and passing comment by a witness's neighbor seemed significant. Even with two decades' distance, there's still a lot that would feel necessary and important in re-presenting the Simpson trial, and I suppose it's inevitable that the storytelling would retreat at times into the safety of listiness and winks forward in time. I mean, I don't know how I would begin to explain these events to...I don't know, a loved one who had just awoken from a Van Winkleian coma. Pretty sure I wouldn't start with the Kardashians, though.
"The Dream Team" isn't great, not after a very strong opening pair of eps. It's a lot of moving pieces into place, and settling signposts next to them so the audience remembers what's where and what it means, but I can forgive it because I don't think it's a permanent condition.
The most self-conscious, grade-grubbing moments, in the order they appeared:
Kardashian pére's desperate need to defend Simpson is not per se uninteresting, but ACS's insistence on underlining the effect it may have had on his children is irrelevant and poorly done. "Fame is fleeting; it's hollow," Kardashian murmurs urgently to his offspring, somewhat distracted by an African-American fellow diner's vain attempts to get a waiter's attention (I think? the cutaway's too much either way). "It means nothing without a virtuous heart." And then the younguns start arguing over egg rolls, and THEN they grew up to be famewhores just like their starfucking father. ROGER THAT.
"'The optics'? What's an optic?"
Excellent question, Marcia Clark! I'll take this one: it's not an expression anyone used 20 years ago. Much of the episode is spent watching various characters dancing around questions of race, averting their eyes from questions of race, becoming offended by questions of race, and/or salivating at the opportunity to leverage questions of race, and in several instances, the execution is pretty good. Shapiro's oleaginously equivocal pitch to Simpson that he needs a black litigator is one instance; Travolta's simultaneous projection of arrogance and discomfort is nicely done. On the other hand, the darkening of Simpson's mug shot on the cover of Newsweek is dealt with so glancingly that I thought I missed something. Jeffrey Toobin's The Run Of His Life is acidic in remarking that, instead of dealing with the issues the treatment of the photo raised in terms of privilege and ethics in journalism, Newsweek apologized for offending anyone and waited for the circus to go to a different town. Is ACS's blink-and-you'll-miss-it take on the controversy a nod to that? Or more of the same?
Marcia Clark's cash-for-trash exposition pedeconference
Taken directly from the book, this explainer about "cash-for-trash" witnesses (who take money from tabloids/newsmags, thereby compromising their testimony and previewing the case of the side planning to call them) is useful in the book, because according to Toobin, this problem had only recently begun to truly plague the D.A.'s office in 1994. Here in 2016, the significance of Judy Shively's appearance on whatever TV tab could have been elided, because we live in a world with entire channels devoted to that programming; we don't need the problem explained.
People love Kato! Except when people hate Kato!
It is quite possible that my esteemed colleague John Ramos will stop being friends with me if I criticize a scene featuring Billy Magnussen shirtless, but B. Mags and his pecs aren't the problem; it's the cramming of all that exposition into one scene. Kato might revive his acting career! The ladies love Kato, to a breast-baring degree! But wait, here's a guy accusing him of helping OJ murder Nicole, using the clumsiest possible wording! ...The case really did make unlikely household names out of dozens of otherwise unremarkable people. I don't know that we needed to see all that work done in a single scene.
And now, a chautauqua on race and AC Cowlings's legal vulnerabilities with Professors Clark and Darden
With great respect for Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown, who almost make you believe that this stilted 101-speak is how two longtime colleagues in the law would talk to each other about the law: no. Hat tip also to Christian Clemenson, who's saddled with the "FRAMED him but that's pre-PAAHHHH-sterous" side of one conversation, like, it is...except it...isn't, which we now know along a number of axes. If we're still watching in Episode 3, we're probably up to date on what's at stake.
"I loved her"
It's not clear to me what the show is trying to do here: convince us Simpson had, by this point, talked himself into thinking he "couldn't have done it"? show Cochran sizing Simpson up and deciding on an alternative narrative from there? Cuba Gooding Jr. and Courtney B. Vance played the scene cagily; it felt like ACS didn't want to commit on making Simpson seem guilty, or Cochran seem too cynical, but at this point in the series, the characters are more likable (or watchable, anyway) when the script and direction aren't trying as hard to make them less un-likable. Did the scene happen, and happen that way? Yeah, probably, but it didn't add anything here. I want to think about what Cochran said about Simpson, not to him.