From the get-go, just how “Ryan Murphy” FX’s show about O.J. Simpson was going to be was a real question — perhaps, a make-or-break one. Coming on the heels of an exhausting and polarizing season of the freewheeling Scream Queens and American Horror Story: Hotel, it seemed that Murphy had gone as far as he could go with his trademark, postmodern pop culture mashup ethos. People were looking for a change. With Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski as the chief showrunners, things seemed like they could go in a very different direction. And in many ways, they are. Yet the toned-down, less facetious approach of the show (from the usual bent of a Murphy production) has actually made things more hard to parse. Even four episodes in, it’s hard to tell exactly what this show — which claims to be offering the “untold story,” but doesn’t seem to be doing it — is really trying to accomplish. More importantly, what it is hoping to make the audience feel at any given time?
The fourth episode is probably ACS’ most successful, at least from a conceptual perspective. It deals, primarily, with the “optics” of everything surrounding the case: Its most powerful moments detail the fallout from a focus group voicing their dislike for Marcia Clark’s demeanor and appearance, the divided public “narratives” of the defense team coming to a head, and the incongruous amount of power a tell-all testimony — no matter how trashy and compromised — can have over a case like this. Yet, on the periphery of these mostly intellectually or simply historically thought-provoking things, we have other things going on. On one hand, there’s the scene where Ronald Goldman’s distraught father bawls and screams to Marcia about the way his son has been treated in the media, or rather, made invisible. His tirade elicits tears from Clark, a mother herself. On the other, there are slo-mo strides down the aisle to classic ’90 West Coast rap anthems, and an opening scene of O.J. hallucinating the best party of his life in jail — just so we can all cross seeing Cuba Gooding, Jr. snort coke off of a woman’s chest off of our bucket list. Ding, ding, ding goes the Murphy alarm.
So the idea that this show is “straightforward” is a myth. It’s not American Horror Story: The beats hit are just a bit more conventional, and the story linear. But it’s still not simply a normal “crime show”: It’s stylized in a way that takes us out of the narrative in different unforeseen ways, and plays with being about things other than the particulars of the trial. The question is, then: what is it? Is all this any more than window-dressing to give a relatively empty shell the “prestige” veneer?
Often, the show seems to be, at its core, a pitch-black comedy: the kind you don’t really laugh at, but plays into the bitter, twisted irony of situations in a way that signifies a distant, parodic, and judgmental eye. But at other moments, it seems to aim for emotionally invested dramatic realism, attempting to create open pathways for viewers to connect viscerally with a character’s sorrow or crisis of faith. Yet those moments never really land, even Ron’s father’s vociferous monologue.
Simpson, himself, remains one-dimensional, which is one of the oddest elements of the show; it might be interesting if its blasé-ness had more definition. This party scene is one of the only direct views into his psychology we’ve seen. We can assume Alexander and Karaszewski are saving the best for later, but for us to feel no real way at all about Simpson — other than he’s not the sharpest tool, perhaps, or has done a few too many pills — feels like an oversight, not a meaningful choice. The normal sometimes-angel, sometimes-monster dichotomy of highbrow TV villains or antagonists is not here. I would welcome reinventing the wheel if I had any idea what the new wheel was, or what kind of vehicle it was for.
How much emotion can a story wring out when its viewership already knows the score and the script is still realizing its character, for the most part, on a mythological level? These are figures many of us can remember, thanks to the shadows they cast for years afterward in the media. Many of the scenes in the show run no deeper than filled-in conversations that lead us to major, well-documented bullet points in the story. That is to say, that show is essentially shading in the expected narrative in the way a Marvel or DC movie creatively fills in the chronology of a comic book series. Also, like those films, ACS pulls from and synthesizes disparate sources, thus making something that feels both new and referential at the same time. But, sometimes, the cycle of fact-checking pieces and other trial-related research summaries seem to be the reason for this show’s existence. When the sign passes over Judge Lance Ito’s door, it seems like we’re meant to say, “Oh shit, yeah! Forgot about him,” or “Here we go …,” eager to welcome the familiar face into the circle.
While the pieces are coming together in terms of the story of the trial, nothing else in terms of tone or intention really is on The People v. O.J. Simpson. Insofar a it is “about” something, namely issues of race and “optics,” but these are debated point-blank by the defense and the prosecution teams in the script. This show just tells us what it is about, but seems to be presuming — with its fluctuating, lightly eccentric presentation — to be doing something more. Four episodes in, one wishes we had a better sense of that vision; there are always plenty more “event” TV shows with which we could be better wasting our time. Declare yourself, American Crime Story!