There was one major surprise in the verdict scene in last night’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story finale: It was a genuine nail-biter. We all knew, of course, that the former football star (Cuba Gooding Jr.) would be pronounced not guilty, but that didn’t matter one bit. The outcome of the trial would impact, if not turn inside out, the lives of many of the people in that courtroom — so many, in fact, that director and series creator Ryan Murphy used split screens to squeeze them all in. Murphy transformed the slog of legal procedure — with its anxious silences and empty, inelegant ceremonies — into monumental tension and dread.
The verdict and its immediate aftermath made for a powerfully affecting wrap-up to an important and often brilliant season of television. If Mad Men ushered in pop culture’s current obsession with history by delighting in how wrong they were, The People v. O.J. Simpson derives its strength in teaching us how wrong we were. (And still are: The rise in reality-TV celebrity that the Trial of the Century generated has now found its horrifying apotheosis in the popularity of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.)
American Crime Story’s debut season succeeded in everything it set out for itself: recontextualizing the Simpson trial through the lenses of race and gender with the benefit of hindsight, reshaping the cartoonish personages the media had created back into human form, and crafting heartbreaking drama and delivering superb performances in service of a story none of us know as well as we think we do. The hushed portraits of loss that make up the finale’s latter half illustrate the variety and enormity of stakes that the main characters had in the trial, from Johnnie Cochran’s (Courtney B. Vance) dirty fight for civil rights and the Goldman family’s all-but-ignored pursuit of justice, to Bob Shapiro’s (John Travolta) regret for playing the race card (by hiring Cochran) and Simpson’s ultimately Pyrrhic victory.
Here are three takeaways from this season as a whole:
1. The People v. O.J. Simpson is one of pop culture’s best takes on domestic violence — but it still wasn’t enough.
Race was this miniseries's original raison d'être: Executive producers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (more on them below) pitched the series three years ago as opening with the Rodney King beating and the riots that followed.
As urgent and essential as discussions about racially motivated police brutality are, though, Black Lives Matter has made some headway in pop culture, including prominent episodes on shows like Black-ish, Scandal, and The Carmichael Show. (The viciousness of the LAPD during the 1990s, culminating with the 2000 Rampart scandal, also inspired FX’s classic evil-cop drama The Shield.)
But domestic violence — an issue rarely depicted with nuance in either film or television despite its horrifying frequency — finally gets its due in The People v. O.J. Simpson. Though the victim only appears as a corpse whose death is fought over, we already know her story: Nicole Brown’s relationship to her husband was a “ticking time bomb,” an escalation of violence that ended in her murder at age 35. In contrast to the wild spectacle of the Simpson trial, the routineness of Brown’s abuse — of any woman’s abuse — is so accepted that the eight black women on the jury, at least as depicted on the show, were much more swayed by the appeals to their race than to their gender. Sarah Paulson enjoys one last bravado monologue in the finale as Marcia Clark, observing how the trial has fundamentally changed her view of the world. Revealing her rape as a young woman to co-prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown), she says, “I have something, this thing in me that wants vengeance, vengeance for victims. That’s what justice is to me. And I've always, always had faith that when I look at a jury, we have that in common. Everyone wants justice for victims, right? I never doubted that. Until this.”
Clark’s final speech to the public is a declaration of hope that the outcome of the trial won’t deter other women from coming forward about their abuse, that they won’t give up on the justice system to rectify the harm done to them. But that message is drowned out by the smearing of Brown: her motherhood erased, as we saw mid-season in the jury’s visit to her house, and her sexuality exposed for the world by vultures like tattling frenemy Faye Resnick (Connie Britton). The People v. O.J. Simpson’s one key disappointment is the lack of insight into its title character’s violence. Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer) ends up floored by the realization that his close friend had been leading a double life all along, that the upright lawyer had been duped into an alliance with a man who would murder his own wife. But we never get a sense of what it was like for O.J. to lead that dual existence, how he could justify such violence to himself, how he could live with taking his children’s mother away from them. That the credits roll to Bill Withers’s “Ain’t No Sunshine” is another gut punch: Here’s yet another man we’ve decided to forgive despite his well-known history of marital abuse.
2. Anticipate more “nonfiction fiction.”
Reality TV could mean something rather different with the current vogue for shows based on true events. In addition to long-form docs like The Jinx and Making a Murderer, episodic storytelling about real people seems to be the new big thing in drama development.
Naturally, for every masterpiece like Orange Is the New Black, there’s a slew of middling fare with varying fealties to the truth, like Narcos, Marco Polo, Manhattan, Masters of Sex, and Boardwalk Empire — and that’s not even counting the Lifetime catalogue of TV movies about real-life women in danger. But with The People vs. O.J. Simpson’s breakout success, copycats will be inevitable, as they offer Hollywood’s two favorite things: self-cannibalism and brand recognition.
3. Temper your expectations for Season 2.
The People v. O.J. Simpson was developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, the screenwriting team behind well-received biopics like Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flint, Big Eyes (about painter Margaret Keane), and Man on the Moon (about comedian Andy Kaufman). The duo wrote or co-wrote half of this season’s 10 episodes (including the finale) and stressed the trial’s role as a "a referendum on the LAPD" in their retelling.
But Alexander and Karaszewski won’t be returning for the second season, opting instead to devote their energies to a film about another real-life personage, Patty Hearst. Creator Murphy has announced his intention to use American Crime Story for good purposes: “I want this show to be a socially conscious, socially aware examination of different types of crime around the world,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. The anthology series’s follow-up season will focus on six to eight characters caught in the gross governmental negligence surrounding Hurricane Katrina. “In my opinion, Katrina was a fucking crime — a crime against a lot of people who didn’t have a strong voice — and we’re going to treat it as a crime.” We can certainly keep our fingers crossed that Murphy will do right by Katrina’s victims, but it’ll be with the knowledge that two of the key people who helped make The People v. O.J. Simpson one of the revelations of the year won’t be around.
As for Season 3, might we suggest revisiting the Menendez brothers?