The People v. O.J. Simpson: From the Ashes of Tragedy

"He didn't ask how she died."

In the opening of the first episode of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the filmmakers propose to us that the ashes of tragedy, here, are the Rodney King beating, the trial, verdict and subsequent riots, which happened just two years prior to the double homicide that touches off this trial of the century.

That this piece of LA's recent history was an antecedent to the frenzied clusterfuck of the O.J. trial is not only possible but probable and the suggestion of it is as strong as it is confident. Within 'From the Ashes of Tragedy' are the seeds of a new kind of storytelling. It's not fiction, it's not a documentary. It's a superbly-thoughtful submitted hypothesis by the creative team: these are the facts, yet we're going to make connections along the way for you. Additionally, there are greatly talented actors but they're playing real people, there's a distinct point of view, many of you have lived this before and it's no less a tragedy in this form. But you're going to be entertained like crazy. Now -- what does all of this say about humanity? Especially that last part. To me, this will be the show's greatest triumph, to make us question why are we revisiting this and how the hell is true crime a genre of entertainment?

So here we are. A season-long investigation into the O.J. Simpson phenomenon from all different angles, some we are familiar with, as a public, and others, not so much. Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote the book of the same name from which the show has adapted itself, had the good sense to be someone who watched the circus watching the circus. He serves as consultant on the show, as well and we are in very good hands, seeing this from his comprehensive perspective. We are also in good hands with the writers, Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, who, among other things, are extremely adept at condensing the tone of each character into one or two key lines of dialogue in each scene. This quality of their writing elevates the pacing of this hour of TV to the level of art. Add to that, that the episode is directed within an inch of its life by hyper-stylized, psycho-sexy-precise, Ryan Murphy, and we are riveted. I was caught off guard how very fucking compelling this show is. For multiple reasons, too, some very fresh and sophisticated. This anthology (Season 2 will cover Katrina) is asking us, are we ready to examine these grievous imprints in our recent history as a microcosm of ourselves and the world we are creating? (Because it's not an attractive reflection, and it's painfully sad, and, at times, an emblem of our worst collective selves.) But there's something very beautiful here -- the series' intention is posed as a question yet it's already clear American Crime Story has faith in us that we are.

The actors cast to tell this story are impeccable in every way imaginable. It appears they serve the intentions of the creators in even more nuanced ways than anyone could have even hoped. Casting Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark is so inspired, I almost can't process it fully. John Travolta playing Robert Shapiro as hauntingly waxen -- equally super. And although their screen time was limited to Nicole's funeral, the trifecta of Jordana Brewster as Nicole's sister, Denise Brown, Selma Blair as Kris Jenner and Connie Britton as Faye Resnick almost ended me. The winks that edge right up against stunt casting like David Schwimmer as Rob Kardashian and even Cuba "Show me the money" Gooding Jr. as O.J. offer their own glee, even pleasure, to behold as an audience member. Aw, shite, there's that feeling again. The one that comes from recognizing the enjoyment we have, seeing these actors we know and love playing sometimes-tormented, often-grieving real people who lived this as their life. But wait, the people involved in all of the facets of the trial were characters anyway, right?

Courtney B. Vance's Johnnie Cochran -- good lord -- A+++

The last shots of 'From the Ashes of Tragedy' show the moments that led up to O.J. running from the arresting officers and getting in his Bronco, with his high school friend and teammate, Al Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner), heading towards LA on the highway. Nina Simone's 'I Shall Be Released' plays. We know where this is going and are still watching. Maybe we'll be released, too.

Closing Statement

* Chris Bauer.

* A lot of really good visual touches throughout...

* The cop sighing visibly with relief when he sees both kids sleeping. Then pausing to look at the pictures on the wall -- focusing on the one with O.J. and his kids.

* The lie detector test looks like the aforementioned 'chains' mentioned in the radio interview with Dennis Schatzman.

* A lot of the police work early on in the episode is shot first person which gives it a leery, creepy, voyeur vibe ala Nightcrawler (the 2014 Dan Gilroy movie).

* I'm fascinated with how much of this story, its details, those involved, is locked up in our collective unconscious. Even in the first episode, I re-remembered what I didn't even know I had a memory of. I hope the show explores the implications of what that may mean for the traumas we go through as a society -- how things are held in our memory for better or worse.


Riske: "There's no media here."
Vannatter: "This is a double-homicide in Brentwood. They'll show."

Marcia Clark: "Nobody gets killed in Brentwood."

Rob Kardashian: "I'm sure I'm on the list."
Cop: "There's no list."

Cop: "We found a trail of blood."

D.A.: "It's the LAPD and a famous guy."

Gil: "'Cuz they're not used to grilling a star."

Johnnie Cochran: "I like to win. This case is a loser."

Reporter: "Who the hell brings their lawyer to a funeral?"


sunbunny said...

I have a different perspective. I was too young to be aware of what was happening at the time. My only memory of any of it is coverage of the trial cutting into Muppet Babies and being upset and not understanding why I couldn't watch Muppet Babies. (Remember Muppet Babies, you guys? It was awesome). In the intervening decades, I cobbled together what happened (more or less) through various jokes and pop culture references over the years but there was still a lot I didn't know. For some reason I was convinced the murder happened during the day and I didn't realize OJ wasn't driving himself on that infamous car chase. OR that the kids were asleep upstairs. I was talking to my mom about the case and she says the fact that the kids were in the house was the thing that initially made her believe he OJ was innocent, because she couldn't believe anyone would do that to their children. (She eventually changed her mind)

As for the quality of the show, it's a little less prestige drama than I wanted it to be but it's still well north of tacky TV-movie territory. Cuba Gooding, Jr. wasn't great, but everyone else brought their A game, particularly Courtney B. Vance, who was on screen for about five minutes and somehow managed to steal the entire eighty minutes. And I love David Schwimmer's constant expression of shock and surprise. It's very Rossian.

I kind of liked all the Kardashian sisters references not because I like the Kardashians, but because for the younger generation of viewers, it grounded it in reality. Without those reminders of real life thrown in there, I might have been guilty of forgetting that this was based on a true story.

My one substantive complaint is that I wish they'd abstained from showing the body so often or so much. It seemed lurid and gratuitous. It probably would have been even more affecting if they hadn't shown it at all.

Mallena said...

When I was growing up there was a true crime movie or miniseries on TV all the time. My favorite one was "Love, lies and murder" which was about a psycho dad who got his daughter and his wife's little sister to murder his wife for him. When OJ was acquitted, I was shocked. I was sure he did it. People are crazy and the crazy things they do is riveting drama. Sometimes real life is very weird. Yes, we also watched Muppet Babies, my kids loved it.

Heather said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I hope you comment again during the season if you continue watching the show. I also think it's fascinating to factor in people's ages in how they perceive this story -- past and presently.
I loved The Muppet Babies and only wish some streaming netlet would pony up the cash for them so my son could watch them now!

I watched a lot of true crime shows with re-enactments in high school. Pre-reality TV. It's sure got a weird strong magnetic power.

ChrisB said...

I have been looking forward to this show as I am interested in revisiting the OJ case. I was in law school while it was all unfolding. You can imagine how much time we all spent discussing it. Like you point out, Heather, I was astonished at how much I remembered, or forgotten that I remembered (if that makes sense).

I had forgotten the Kardashian connection. Probably because, at the time, the name meant nothing to me. sunbunny makes a great point about using the family to ground the show for generation that didn't live thorough this craziness.

I'm looking forward to watching this with you, Heather.

Heather said...

I am excited you're watching this. Please comment along the way with things you discussed in your super-smart super-analytical heady cool law classes! I would love to hear.