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American Crime Story

The People v. OJ Simpson Rests Its Case

How American Crime Story's ultra-watchable first outing put us back in the mid-nineties, and why we let it.

What is it about this case, this trial? What is it that so fascinated us back then -- and still fascinated us now, decades later, via American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson? What allowed ACS to tell us a story, a dark ugly story, that so many of us already knew?

Because I didn't have any particular desire to go back to that time, so maybe ACS merely benefited from adequate distance from 1994-5 and its virtual requirement that anyone with electricity have an opinion on the trial and an investment in that opinion's worth. I don't think that explains it, though, how the show so effectively and wholly puts us back in that time, and for that we have the production designers to thank. The music; the hair; the quality of the light and the shape of televisions. Every extra in OJ's victory party is turned out exactly for that date, no rogue platforms or anachronistic beachy waves. It's quite an achievement. Where did they even find that many sackish double-breasted suits, Party City?

But -- without taking away from the wardrobe team's commitment to historically accurate neckwear -- it's bigger than that. ACS's most obvious achievement is the acting performances, an almost uniformly excellent set of scenes and inhabitings of real people that, if there's any justice in awards (spoiler: there isn't), should make next year's ceremony the Emmys of the century. To tell the story of the murders of Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson in a new way is difficult enough; to do it in the roles of real people is even more difficult, as you try to walk the line between assaying the actual person accurately and doing a disrespectful imitation. I can't think of an ensemble cast playing known figures that did such a great job across the board of letting me feel like I knew them, while at the same time giving me enough of what I already knew to gain my trust in the performance.

This is, I think, the heart of it, why we followed the trial so closely back then and have followed ACS's revisiting of it so closely for the last ten weeks: that there is a set of central, incontrovertible unknowables at the center of the situation. That it is usually the unknowability of a murder, an unsolved killing, a disappearance that preoccupies us in matters of true crime, and that we as a society studied and learned the facts of The People v. OJ Simpson so closely, every one of them, to try to soothe the psychological irritation of never knowing what really happened on June 12, 1994 -- what set OJ off, how Ron Goldman got sucked fatally into the maelstrom, what OJ told himself that night or on June 17 or the next fall or last week about having killed his ex-wife and her friend. I do not buy that OJ had the moment Ryan Murphy showed us in the finale, the somber accounting with his reflection and the subsequent breakdown.

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I believe that, by that time, OJ Simpson had convinced himself of the verdict's just truth and of his own status as a victim. But: I don't know. I don't know what could possibly possess a man to serially abuse his spouse; it's not how the wiring is for me, I simply don't understand it. I can't know. None of us can know. But ACS (and Toobin's book) let us know a few things we didn't, let us get to know the people on both sides of the fight for justice/OJ's freedom, let us hear and understand things we hadn't. I've never had an issue with the show's occasional seeming caginess on the subject of whether OJ committed the murders, because The Truth, whatever that is here, slipped down into the gap between good-time celebrity surface and lethal rage. Or between the white Angeleno's experience of LAPD and the Angeleno of color's. It always does that. How does the saying go...a trial isn't about information, it's about blaming someone?

ACS isn't beyond-ANY-doubt perfect. Murphy directed the closer, and he abused the horror zoom. A couple of factual fillips felt shoehorned in (the bodyguards). The actors playing the primary Goldmans looked the part, but disappointed otherwise; Judge Ito's yawing between overly deliberate care and blatant grandstanding didn't get explored. But it's just beyond-reasonable-doubt great: confident, well-built, respectful of the victims and their families (in my opinion; the families initially maintained that any return to that era was a body blow), but not overly self-serious, with the right balance of things many of us remember and things none of us heard about or considered, and acting that was really entertaining even when it fell short of brilliantly nuanced. It understood what it is we need from true-crime stories, and delivered it: knowledge.

And, with a dry chyron about OJ's Nevada parole at the very end, justice, of a meager sort.

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