When Tina Fey shows up late into Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s first season, she does so playing a hapless prosecutor named Marcia. Working alongside her partner Chris (Jerry Minor), they’re attempting to bring Jon Hamm’s predatory cult leader to justice. They have an odd, off-putting sexual chemistry; they make weird references to their history; they’re completely incompetent. It’s a straightforward parody of Marcia Clark and Chris Darden, who were just portrayed with greater accuracy and sobriety by Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. I understand Kimmy Schmidt’s link to the real world now, but I didn’t when I watched the show last year. In my mind, Fey and Minor were playing dumb just for the sake of it, a decision that made sense given the average intelligence of Kimmy Schmidt’s characters.
I was about a year and a half old when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman were murdered, and I was a few weeks away from turning three when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty. The combination of age and geography — I grew up and live in Canada, where Simpson and his case haven’t enjoyed the same degree of prominence — meant the trial was never a part of my life. I knew about the Bronco chase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” and the fact that he was actually acquitted, and that’s about it.
It let me appreciate the show for the masterful piece of TV it was
My ignorance and my youth were totally inconsequential in this regard until earlier this year, when the case started to work its way into my media diet in a major way. The morally corrupt Faye Resnick reappeared on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills and served as the basis for a major side plot, and American Crime Story premiered on FX to rave reviews and record ratings. The combination of these two shows meant I was learning about the trial without watching a minute of dated footage or reading about it. And now that American Crime Story’s finale is in the books — it aired on Tuesday — I find myself glad I went in almost totally blind. It allowed me to appreciate the show for the masterful piece of TV it was, instead of assessing its accuracy and constantly calibrating its position between historical recreation and utter fiction.
All of the critical writing regarding American Crime Story mentions the show’s verisimilitude, mostly through the prism of its performances. Some of them — like Paulson, Brown, and Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran — are near-perfect; the casting of Cuba Gooding Jr. as the physically imposing, charismatic Simpson is often cited as the show’s one potential misstep. Coming into the show unfamiliar with any of its core characters meant freedom from that constant background calculation — are these people lining up with the people I remember? — and just enjoying the performances, the great majority of which remained stupendous. (Let’s all give special thanks to John Travolta’s eyebrows, which had to bear so much weight for so long.)
“Holy shit — did that really happen?”
I didn’t have to reckon with any bias regarding the trial’s participants, either: no grudges held regarding the lawyers’ behavior, no umbrage taken with the outcome. Any slight deviations from the real trial went unnoticed unless I read about them after the fact; when something unbelievable happened, I found myself asking, “Holy shit — did that really happen?” It’s a testament to both the insanity of the real-life events and the show’s ability to render them.
Beyond its performances, the show’s ability to adequately communicate the case’s central themes and cultural relevance — even to a total neophyte like me — is what’ll ensure its place among this year’s finest pieces of TV. I didn’t know much about the show’s racial significance or its enduring importance going in, and it’s crystal clear now. In addition to capturing the complexity of O.J.’s position within a city reeling from years of racial unrest — his wealth, his neighborhood, his chosen peers, his potential guilt — it went a step further and delved into the ways in which race affected the prosecution and defense. Clark forced Darden to work with Mark Fuhrman, a decision that backfired in multiple ways by the time the verdict was delivered. Cochran wrestled control of the defense from Mark Shapiro because he understood the case’s racial dimension and knew how to effectively minimize the mounting evidence.
The show’s brilliant finale encapsulated the case’s impact
Its impact was encapsulated by the show’s brilliant finale. Clark thought she was fighting for justice, plain and simple; Cochran viewed the trial as the means with which he’d strike back against a system that had punished and marginalized black people for decades. When Cochran saw President Bill Clinton address police brutality, he believed Simpson’s acquittal had scored the victory he sought; Darden argued it’d have no impact on the thousands of black people who’d go on to live in fear of the police for decades. The scene in the finale in which they lay out their respective trains of thought might be the show’s finest.
The show benefits from hindsight because so many of its threads — the conflicts described above, the misogyny Clark faced, the intersection of race, gender, and class — continue to resonate today. I can fully appreciate that resonance now, and it’s more relevant to my life than it was in 1995, if only because I was a toddler. I’m glad American Crime Story gave me an entry point, and if I decide to immerse myself in the case to a greater degree, I won’t have to turn away from my TV screen: ESPN’s five-part O.J. documentary is on the horizon.