The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story Tuesdays, 10 p.m., FX.
Anyone who turned on a TV during the seemingly interminable period in 1994 and ’95 when the O.J. Simpson murder trial took up hundreds of broadcast hours will probably instinctively cringe at the 10 hourlong episodes devoted to the case in the excruciatingly detailed miniseries The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Rehashing every motion, every media appearance, every personality clash of the divisive saga, The People ends up at odds with itself, torn between the typically overwrought sensationalism of executive producer Ryan Murphy (Glee, American Horror Story, Scream Queens) and the slightly more respectable true-life drama created by head writers Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (screenwriters of Ed Wood, The People vs. Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon).
Sensationalism wins out much of the time, and even the more grounded material ends up somewhat painful to watch, given how the series drags out the story to fill an entire season (Simpson’s infamous Ford Bronco escape attempt takes up the whole second episode). The writing is full of heavy-handed references to things viewers know more about than the characters do, and the parade of colorful figures (Al Cowlings! Kato Kaelin! The Kardashians!) is more overwhelming than engaging. The cast is full of well-known actors, and the performances range from misguided and campy (Connie Britton as a loopy Faye Resnick; John Travolta affecting a Dr. Evil voice as lawyer Robert Shapiro) to genuinely affecting. Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance give the strongest performances as prosecutor Marcia Clark and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, respectively, and both are presented sympathetically as principled people doing what they sincerely believe is right.
Cuba Gooding Jr. falls somewhere in the middle in his portrayal of Simpson himself, and the show never definitively states whether it believes Simpson killed his ex-wife Nicole Brown and her friend Ron Goldman. It’s more interested in exploring, often inelegantly, issues of race and class, big ideas that get steamrolled under Murphy’s usual bombastic production style (his main contribution as a director is a lot of distractingly swooping camera moves). A story that was exhaustively scrutinized at the time it occurred proves just as exhausting two decades later.