American Horror Story is FX’s most popular program, so it’s no surprise that the network has doubled down on the creative team, ordering a second series by them, AMERICAN CRIME STORY. The official title of the first season, premiering tomorrow, is THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY, which is a bit longer than it probably should be. That’s not the only thing that’s different from the Horror franchise, though, which typically only allows one or two words beside its core moniker.
The biggest change is the level of quality present. While American Horror Story is extremely artistic and surreal, with the style and tone of the piece being as much of a draw as the story, AMERICAN CRIME STORY is much more grounded in reality, to its detriment. Though, Murphy and company managed to maintain an excellent product when delivering The Normal Heart for HBO, so pulling the new series away from the fantasy realm can’t fully excuse the jolting adjustment.
AMERICAN CRIME STORY, rather than being in the Murphy vein, is very much a true crime story. This is in vogue right now, with Serial being a hugely successful podcast and Making a Murderer getting lots of attention over at Netflix. The network’s own Fargo qualifies as one of these, too, though is more hyper-realistic, so doesn’t have the same limitations as this series, which has the added challenge of telling a story practically everyone is at least a little familiar with.
The crux of this series will be in showing the human side of the tale, getting into the emotional state of those involved and making a compelling character study, which is where it is best. There are a number of intriguing personalities involved in this case. It takes about a full hour of THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY for the audience to get used to this new format, and for the story to get to that all-important element. This means, perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, that the series begins slow, then picks up quickly thereafter.
Hour two is what hooks me. Featuring remarkable performances by both Cuba Gooding Jr. (Jerry Maguire) as O.J. Simpson and David Schwimmer (Friends) as Robert Kadashian, this is where THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY figures out what it needs to be. Sure, there’s the spectacle of the case, and that does come through. But taking us behind the spectacle, to the parts at-home watchers weren’t privy to the first time around, it is where things really soar.
There is no shortage of performers poised to follow up those brilliant moments of the second installment, giving me hope that the rest of the season will be just as good. From Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) as Marcia Clark, to Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek) as Gil Garcetti, to Christopher Darden (Army Wives) as Sterling K. Brown, to Christian Clemenson (Boston Legal) as Bill Hodgman, and, of course, Courtney B. Vance (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) as Johnnie Cochran, the casting is terrific. And I haven’t even seen the great Nathan Lane (The Producers), credited as a main player, yet! Plus, there are a host of terrific guest stars lining up, a few of which already appear early on.
The one possible weak link is John Travolta (Grease, Hairspray), who is playing Robert Shapiro. I say possible because, quickly reviewing some clips of the actual Shaprio, I’m not sure Travolta’s choices are all that far off from who he’s supposed to be. And yet, there’s something so plastic about his Shapiro that I’m not convinced he’s doing his best. Travolta has oodles of talent, but it’s been awhile since he’s really shone. It will be interesting to see if he rises to the level of his co-stars, or continues is professional descent.
The second thing, besides character, that AMERICAN CRIME STORY does well is to tell the story in context. No, I’m not talking about how this trial gave birth to the Kadashian infestation in the public spotlight, though that certainly is a regrettable consequence. Instead, I’m speaking of race relations in Los Angeles at the time, which plays a very big role in what motivates a number of character decisions. Some of the early mistakes made by the prosecution and law enforcement seem to be related to combating negative images brought about after the Rodney King riots, making context very relevant.
So, even if Travolta never really steps up, there verdict is likely to be positive on THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY. There is so much going right here that it can likely overcome a few minor missteps with ease. Just give it an hour to get its footing first.
THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.