By the time a nationally watched trial reaches its series finale — I mean verdict — many of the people involved have become TV characters of sorts.
Ever since the game-changing O.J. Simpson trial, TV viewers, the self-appointed juries, have been obsessively tracking the likes of Oscar Pistorius, Jodi Arias, Amanda Knox, Scott Peterson, and the Menendez brothers. And they’re as attached to these characters and their stories as they might be to “General Hospital.” Add in People magazine covers, HLN and CNN coverage, and the odd Barbara Walters “get,” and you’ve got a full-on entertainment sensation. Guilty or not guilty, cold-blooded killers or innocent victims, they’re famous.
So the scripted TV versions of these famous trials that inevitably materialize, typically on Lifetime or the broadcast networks, are very often tediously redundant and kitschy — think of the thick-framed glasses actor Eric McCormack rocked in 2010’s “Who Is Clark Rockefeller?” Watching synthetic versions of cases that have already been overexposed? Boring. Worse, the TV versions are usually nothing more than a dull way to exploit a case for easy money, to milk a real-crime brand.
This week, two giant cases find their ways to TV, complete with stunt-casting and fetishized objects, notably a leather glove and a Ford Bronco. One of them — ABC’s two-part miniseries “Madoff” — is a cheap plastic reproduction, a Nielsen grab whose only virtue is a layered lead performance by Richard Dreyfuss. The other — FX’s 10-part series “The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” — is a superior effort, a successful attempt both to vividly re-create the original case and to intelligently reframe it from a more knowing 2016 perspective.
“The People V. O.J. Simpson,” which premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m., brings more to the table than a headlines-only retelling of the double murder of Nicole Brown Simpson, 35, and Ron Goldman, 25, in June 1994. Based on the book “The Run of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson” by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, the series is anchored in a step-by-tiny-step description of the days right after the murders and then the epic trial. If you were watching the case unfold 22 years ago, you will recognize all of the pieces in the story, including O.J.’s slow ride on the 405. It’s a sharp and mostly loyal retelling, without the kind of invented scenes that scripted versions of real crimes usually traffic in.
But the script, by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, also brings in larger issues that have become more openly discussed in the years since the trial. The series opens with footage from the 1992 LA riots after the Rodney King verdict, a bookend that puts the O.J. story in context as a chapter in America’s ongoing tale of racial politics that is now doing business as Black Lives Matter. During the slow freeway chase, a man in a crowd says, “We’re not cheering for O.J., we’re boo-ing the LAPD.” The series is filled with racial awareness, particularly in showing the relationship between grandstanding defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (a spectacular Courtney B. Vance) and prosecuting attorney Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), both black but coming at the trial from opposing points of view. Darden is caught between worlds, as his father urges him to stay away from the Simpson case altogether.
Other issues are teased out nicely, including domestic violence. After hearing that Nicole had made many 911 calls in the years before her death, prosecutor Marcia Clark (a pitch-perfect Sarah Paulson) says, “The system failed her.” Meanwhile, Clark watches her case devolve into a likability contest and an indictment of her appearance. The series also brings in Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) as Simpson’s friend and lawyer, whose young children, including Kim, make appearances. The Kardashian kids see their father swept into the notoriety of the trial, and they are dazzled. Alas, we know too well where that particular story line ends up, and the scope of its influence on today’s reality TV and culture.
Interestingly, the fact that “The People V. O.J. Simpson” is executive produced and occasionally directed by Ryan Murphy, a TV honcho known for confusing drama with hype and cartoon, works in its favor. Murphy loves broad theatrics too much, and he has let them spoil most of his shows, including “Glee” and “American Horror Story.” But his influence matches his subject here: The O.J. Simpson trial quickly devolved in a mishmash of courtroom theatrics and optics — qualities that have since become de rigueur in legal challenges. The excessiveness of some of performances — Billy Magnussen as Kato Kaelin, Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, Evan Handler as Alan Dershowitz, Robert Morse as Dominick Dunne — seems right in this context. As defense attorney Robert Shapiro, John Travolta leans just the right amount into caricature, as a vain name-dropper with an impossibly tight jaw and bombastic eyebrows. He embodies the script’s take on how class and privilege can transcend race.
As Simpson, Cuba Gooding Jr. doesn’t aim for physical likeness. He’s smaller and has a speedier and more animated presence than the man he’s playing. His O.J. can be whiney, and we see him fall into self-pity in the hours after he has written suicide notes and sits in the Bronco backseat holding a gun at his head. But Gooding brings enough ego, narcissism, and idiocy to be convincing, as Simpson refers to himself in the third person with lines such as “They got the Juice in handcuffs.” As the focal point around which teams of lawyers fight and the media buzzes, he is fine.
Dreyfuss is better than fine in “Madoff,” which premieres on Wednesday at 8 p.m. He shows us the charm and deeply hidden desperation of Bernie Madoff, who ruined lives from his own greed and ego. Dreyfuss impressively keeps Madoff’s villainy human-scaled and, at times, petty, and therefore more potent. The miniseries that is constructed around him, though, is flat and simplistic, with none of the intelligence and intrigue that has elevated other stories set in high finance, “Billions” and “The Big Short.” It serves as little more than a generic backdrop in front of which Dreyfuss can give us his cold-blooded best.
THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Starring: John Travolta, Cuba Gooding Jr., Sarah Paulson, David Schwimmer, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Nathan Lane, Connie Britton, Evan Handler, Billy Magnussen
Tuesday night, 10-11:30
Starring: Richard Dreyfuss, Blythe Danner, Frank Whaley, Lewis Black, Peter Scolari, Michael Rispoli
Wednesday and Thursday night, 8-10