To inaugurate his latest anthology series, "American Crime Story," Ryan Murphy ("American Horror Story," "Glee") has chosen to make a miniseries about the O.J. Simpson trial — that is, the first O.J. Simpson Trial, when the former football star was charged in the killings of his wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman. Cuba Gooding Jr., who played presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson in a biopic and a conceited football player in "Jerry Maguire," which won him an Oscar, takes the title role in "The People v. O.J. Simpson," with John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as his lawyers Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran, respectively. Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown portray prosecuting attorneys Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden.
Last year was the 20th anniversary of that trial, which some of you will remember watching unfold, gavel to gavel, as a much longer, everyday miniseries, numbingly long but not lacking for real and manufactured drama. Its sensational elements and celebrity defendant got it nicknamed the Trial of the Century in a century that also included the Scopes Monkey Trial and the trials of Sacco and Vanzetti, Adolf Eichmann, the Chicago 7 and the policemen who beat Rodney King, whose acquittal sparked the L.A. riots three years earlier. A King-related montage opens the series, a then-fresh memory that influenced how the district attorney's office handled the Simpson case and many people interpreted its facts — and its "facts."
Premiering Tuesday on FX, the 10-episode series, of which six were made available for review, is based on the book "The Run of His Life" by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, who specializes in legal issues and was once a prosecutor. His focus, then, is less on the crime than the lawyers and their lawyering, and "The People v. O.J. Simpson" is similarly inclined. Toobin thinks Simpson is guilty, and though the series doesn't say so explicitly, it feels sympathetic to that reading.
Gooding's Simpson remains something of a cipher — he has to play him as someone who might or might not have done it — and beyond the occasional cheek-twitch, he doesn't attempt even a rough impression of his person or manner. (He's the wrong size, his voice is raspier and thinner, and though he's the right age, he looks older than Simpson was at the time.) Mostly he seems, not inappropriately, tired and out of sorts, loathe to confront or commit. As the drama is configured, Simpson is, if not beside the point, less than central to the action: Clark and Darden, Shapiro and Cochran (and Darden and Cochran) — that's where the drama resides.
Although Toobin feels that Clark and Darden undid their own case and that the defense was conducted cynically — that famous "race card" — the book is deep enough that most of the players involved seem at least human and get credit where it's due. (And it is thoughtful about the racial components of the case, publicly, privately and professionally.) The exception is Shapiro, treated as mainly concerned with his own power and prestige and appreciation. With his dyed hair and prosthetic eyebrows, Travolta as Shapiro seems not quite of this Earth. Possibly not by accident, it's the least natural performance in the series, a little like Mike Myers as Lorne Michaels as Dr. Evil.
The big, pleasurable cast includes Robert Morse as Dominick Dunne, Connie Britton as Nicole's exploitative friend Faye Resnick, Malcolm Jamal-Warner as A.C. Cowlings, Rob Morrow as DNA expert Barry Scheck, Larry King as Larry King (from a distance) and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Simpson's best friend and the father of Kim and Khloe and so on. "We are Kardashians," he tells them, "and in this family being a good person and a loyal person is more important than being famous; fame is fleeting, it's hollow. It means nothing without a virtuous heart."
The show was developed by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, whose earlier adapted-from-life screenplays include "The People vs. Larry Flynt," "Man on the Moon" and the Margaret Keane biopic "Big Eyes." They and their fellow writers do a good job getting the information out, (mostly) without making the dialogue too obviously expository; it happens at times, but it almost can't be helped.
As producer and sometimes director, Murphy keeps the production pretty level-headed — not documentary naturalism, exactly, but close enough for respect. Most of the time: When F. Lee Bailey, played by Nathan Lane, quizzes Det. Mark Fuhrman, played by Steven Pasquale, about his use of the N-word, the camera rockets back and forth and in and out as if it has just discovered itself to be alive. But this is really an exception; significant looks and pregnant pauses are more the rule.
If you are new to this bit of history, so new that the "bloody glove" and "slow-speed chase" mean nothing to you, "The People v. O.J. Simpson" will tell you some of what you need to know, and not everything in it will be 100% true. But it will get you part of the way there, far enough to remind you that there is always further to go, heading toward a truth that's always at least a hair out of reach.
'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story'
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17 with advisories for coarse language and violence)