Outside the Box: American Crime Story's retelling of the OJ trial is pulp television at its best

'The People vs. OJ Simpson' revels in filling in the blanks, showing there's a lot more to the story than just the black and white

OJ Simpson, American Crime Story

Cuba Gooding Jr cowers as OJ Simpson in the back of the infamous white Ford Bronco [FX]

It’s highly unlikely that any of the viewers who tune into the first episode of The People vs. OJ Simpson on Monday night won’t be familiar with his murder trial, arguably the most famous in American history. But the makers behind American Crime Story – a new anthology television series that will focus on Hurricane Katrina in its next iteration – kick off proceedings in this glossy and wickedly good drama with footage that pre-dates the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in Brentwood, California in 1994.

Instead, the ten-part drama kicks off like another 1990s masterpiece, the French movie La Haine, boldly threading together video footage of the Rodney King beating and the riots it inspired, like footage of an all-out race war taking place on sunny streets of Los Angeles. The sense of unease and simmering violence between local police officers is no nostalgia hit, rather forming a stark bookend to the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement, and setting the scene for viewers to be aware that Simpson’s arrest and trial became a focal point of racial tension in the US.

It’s an important foot note to tick off the list when it comes to approaching a show that promises the full story, as the rest of the details are so indelibly marked in the history of pop culture. More than 90m people tuned in to watch the white Ford Bronco 4x4 make its way down the highway, a suicidal Simpson cowering in the back seat in what must be the most pitiable attempt at a getaway in history. We know about the barking dogs, the ill-fitting gloves, the Court TV recordings. And, of course, we all know the verdict – an event deemed so important it’s received the greatest laurel wreath in Ireland, inclusion in the ’95 episode of Reeling in the Years.

It’s what we don’t know that American Crime Story promises, and – for want of a better word – there’s more to the OJ Simpson trial than just black and white.

Based on the book The Run of his Life by New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, this adaptation of the trial, the media circus, and the lives of all the principal players involved comes with the kind of pedigree that would make most people wary; written by the minds behind Agent Cody Banks, produced and directed by Ryan Murphy, best known for his teen musical series Glee, with a washed-up actor – and a handful of other ones in supporting parts – taking on the lead role in the first thing you can remember him being in since Jerry Maguire. But rest assured, the opening episode, From the Ashes of Tragedy, might just be the most riveting crime drama you’ll watch since you finished Making a Murderer.

Oscar-winning actor Cuba Gooding Jr stars as OJ Simpson [Facebook]

Perfectly paced, the episode kicks off with a reticent Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr) getting a ride to the airport from an enthusiastic limo driver, followed by the discovery of two bloody corpses, one of whom belongs to the footballer and movie star’s estranged wife. Cue the police investigators, who kick the case on to the local District Attorney’s office, where Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson, masterfully outperforming everyone around her and the miserable medusa curls of her wig) doesn’t know who the Juice is, but knows she wants to bring him to justice.

But it isn’t just the authorities tightening their net around Simpson, with the media closing in on his mansion, with the earliest moments of the whole affair splashed out on television like some proto-reality-TV show. Fitting then, that Robert Kardashian, played by Friends actor David Schwimmer, is there to help OJ pick up the pieces, though the attempts to shoehorn in references to his now superstar daughters are performed about as subtly as the blows that got OJ in trouble in the first place. A far better use of children to propel the plot comes from Simpson’s daughter leaving a message on her mother’s answering machine, completely unaware what’s going on.

As opening episodes go, building up to Simpson’s lamentable suicide note – signed with a smiley face – and the Bronco escape that made news around the world, by filling in the gaps of things we don’t know, the things we already do are nothing short of riveting.

American Crime Story - The People Vs. OJ Simpson starts on BBC2 on Monday at 9pm.

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