While "The People vs. O.J. Simpson" has some genuine flaws, the overall production manages to overcome these deficits with strong performances and an intriguing focus on the lawyers driving the case.
The first episode opens, appropriately enough, with the videotaped beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers and the fraught aftermath. The point being made about the intensely differing experiences of, and attitudes towards, police in America is lost though due to the weak portrayal of O.J. Simpson by Cuba Gooding, Jr. His miscasting is a central error in the series and the strong focus on him in the first several episodes diminishes their overall quality and impact. The most glaring error here is that Mr. Gooding simply lacks the physical stature and ease, as well as the charming and non-threatening vocal presence that helped Mr. Simpson turn his record breaking football career into national celebrity status, even though he experienced only moderate success in his later endeavors. Mr. Gooding's lack of presence and nuance fails to capture the unique position Mr. Simpson held over several decades of increasing racial tension in the country--he was popular enough with many minorities, as he achieved success in a world full of racial hurdles, while still remaining popular with many whites as he did not challenge them with identity politics. Mr. Gooding's shallow performance, further marred by poor directing and scripting, fails to illustrate a central conundrum of the story--how completely divided the nation became along racial line over the fate of a black man who had otherwise managed to avoid being involved in racial politics throughout his career.
The series finds its footing though as the lawyer's characters and motivations start to emerge. For a well known story with many defined characters, the script still manages to find fresh ground, partly through its deft interplay with the fate we already know awaits each of these individuals. For example, when we first meet Marcia Clark, as she fields a call regarding the murders while feeding her young sons breakfast, it is surprising to find that she doesn't even know who O.J. Simpson is, especially given the role his celebrity will play in the trial and the court of public opinion. Or when we see Johnnie Cochran give fatherly advice to a discouraged Chris Darden, whose cramped little office illustrates not only his personal isolation but also his frustration at making so little impact in his dream field of civil rights, we can only wince because we know later Mr. Cochran will essential cast Mr. Darden as an 'Uncle Tom' for working for the prosecution, a judgement that will haunt Mr. Darden for the rest of his life.
The strength of the intersections of race, class, gender, and experience displayed in the script are only strengthened by key strong performances. Not surprisingly, Sarah Paulson excels at delivering the grit and drive of Marcia Clark as well as the unforgettable fragility of a woman fighting for her place in a man's world. Sterling K. Brown, successfully portrayal Chris Darden as a man frozen with the anger and unease he feels as he is divided between so many opposites, especially his emotional understanding of racial injustice and his reasoned understanding of the evidence against Mr. Simpson. Courtney B. Vance almost outdoes the ebullient Mr. Cochran, as he captures a man who is animated not only by his commitment to racial justice, but also by his thirst for recognition and power. I can't decide what I think of David Schwimmer's wide-eyed performance as Robert Kardashian, but he is effectively used to represent the growing acceptance over the years by many that the amiable Mr. Simpson did in fact murder the mother of his children and an innocent bystander, Ron Goldman.
The series has other insights as well, including the disconnect between Ms. Clark and the jury and her blindness to the racial dimension present in delivering her case, the restrictive conditions the jury worked under, and the infighting of the "dream team," but the end of the series is again marred by a return of focus to Gooding's O.J. The last episode would have had a stronger finish if it had ended with the insights by the main trial characters, such as Shapiro who disavows the race card approach that he initiated, Clark, who reveals her own motivation for seeking justice for the innocent because of her own untried rape, Darden's sharp analysis that the trial is no civil rights victory, or Cochran's insistence that President Clinton's emphasis on trying to come to understand how racial groups in America could understand the trial and its outcome so differently is the real victory. Yet we are returned to the flat O.J. who we watch coming to understand that his big courtroom win is a hollow victory as his life will never be the same. He has not only lost Nicole, his young children, and his friends and social status, he has essentially lost his sense of self, finding no solace in the uncertain man he sees in the mirror or in the man he has memorialized with a statue in his own backyard. Ultimately, the sense of the deep tragedy of this story, starting with the murder of two defenseless people, the destruction of their families, the continuing lack of justice for victims of abuse and violence, and the continuing conflict over policing and racial equality before the law, seem so much bigger than just the loss of comfort for one man, O.J. Simpson. For as big as his celebrity was, and his infamy became, he is to small a man ultimately to capture the complex tragedy of his actions.