American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, like any true crime series, is not all that it could be. But perhaps the thing it does best is ground itself in its ensemble, thereby never truly tipping its hand as to where it thinks blame should lie.
The show is officially agnostic on whether they think Simpson truly committed the heinous acts brought against him in the 1990s. Which is good; even decades after the “trial of the century” no one’s 100 percent sure what happened that fateful night. Heck, no one’s even wholly clear on what happened with the trial. Which is what the showrunners of American Crime Story want to get to the bottom of.
Eight episodes in and they’ve turned the story over and over as it rolls along: How Johnnie Cochran got involved, how the tense race relations between the LAPD and the community came up (and stayed up), Marcia Clark’s ill-fated attempts to turn the trial on gender and domestic violence, and her own interactions with those things during the trial.
But the show refuses to favor any one plot line over another. Selectively, for an episode or a scene here or there, sure. But in the grand scheme of the show, American Crime Story doesn’t immediately anchor itself in any one character. My guess is any feelings as to a “protagonist” or “lead” would betray the sympathies and understandings of the viewer, not the show.
It may show us Clark’s trial and tribulations at the hands of a story-hungry press, seemingly with no line they’re unwilling to cross. It may show us the tough world Clark found herself in, occupying the unfortunate overlap between glaring media spotlight and being a professional woman in the 1990s. But that doesn’t stop us from seeing her failures as a lawyer: Her inability to see or seriously consider Mark Fuhrman’s racism, the decision to forgo what the jury experts were telling her, ignoring key witnesses because they gave interviews, and her miscalculation on what the trial frenzy would amount to. In the hands of American Crime Story, we see Marcia Clark as a woman who made some missteps and suffered vicious sexism, not just a competent woman who can clearly point to sexism as a reason for poor outcomes.
And we see it throughout the cast: Cochran, Christopher Darden, Robert Shapiro—none of these “characters” are given preference, and so all of them are given a limelight. It’s an ensemble in the true sense of the word, and as such it’s much more able to demonstrate how this trial snowballed into the frenzy that it’s known today while also establishing why its characters would have no idea how to handle that. If they wanted to put a single person on trial they could have anchored it anywhere. But the choice to leave its perspective as a sort of tether-less, amorphous gas cloud shared by all its players is exactly how to show how suffocating the climate around the trial was.