Loving You Is Complicated
If American Crime Story: The People vs OJ Simpson were a person you’d roll your eyes pretty much every time it opened its mouth. Particularly if you’ve frittered away whole weeks of your life devouring “quality” programming like Breaking Bad, huge swatches of ACS' televisual fabric will stick in your craw. The exposition is handled with all the subtlety of an American Horror Story bludgeoning, with supporting characters chipping in with helpful so-let-me-get-this-straights and misty-eyed reminiscences over OJ’s days as a player. The fact that OJ’s trial was a major television event that held America in thrall is suggested by showing the trial as a major television event that holds America in thrall (if you took a shot every time you saw a crowd of people looking at a TV screen, by the third ad break you’d be dead). Showrunner Ryan Murphy’s grasp of the poetic, suggestive power of the narrative lens stretches to a close up of the “to protect and serve” insignia on a cop’s motorbike as he pulls over a black character; if this is too subtle for you he also finishes one episode with a lingering close-up on an allegedly racist cop’s NAZI MEMORABILIA. So far so stupid, so silly, so simplistic.
But also so weirdly, undeniably vital, mixing the hot-mess garbage fire watchability of AHS with whiplash camera work (so many zooms!) to create something powerful, arresting. And once you dig below the surface, something a little slyer, a little more clued-up than you might expect. Take the cast, for instance. On first look, it’s pure stunting: Murphy packing the deck with the sort of seasoned ham you might pair tastefully with an ice-cold Manzanilla. Cuba Gooding Jr is a petulant man-child as OJ – all strained vocal chords and shouty small-man-syndrome stature, not a Heisman-winning athlete with a trigger-finger temper and actually lethal rage problem. John Travolta, David Schwimmer and Nathan Lane as the Caucasian core of OJ’s defence Dream Team are incontrovertibly themselves, not the people they’re playing. Only Courtney B Vance steps up to the plate, turning in easily the most watchable performance of the young 2016: equal parts the fury of a righteous man beset on all sides, the tics and tricks of a showman playing to the gallery, and the steely-eyed professionalism of a seasoned court lawyer (at one point he tells a member of the prosecution whose appointment he has publicly questioned as tokenism “Brother I ain’t trying to be respectful – I’m trying to win”, and the passion he manages to cram into that final syllable hits you like something physical).
The casting of a proper actor in such a pivotal, central role – someone who can inhabit and invigorate a part, not just play a version of the same role they’ve played a hundred times before – gave me pause for thought. Plainly, Murphy could have cast another Travolta-esque faded icon in Courtney B Vance’s place (nostalgic 90s Twitter would probably die of a heart attack if Wesley Snipes chose this as the vehicle to return him to the big time). But he (Murphy, maybe Snipes) chose otherwise, just as he (Murphy) chose to include the young Kardashian children when the narrative has no real need or space for them. And when you consider that Murphy had a number of such choices to make, and in many instances he made the bold choice, the decisive choice, the interesting choice, then American Crime Story becomes less a single show, more a show moving on different levels, at different paces, to different destinations.
In freeing Nathan Lane from Modern Family fag-hag purgatory, or forcing David Schwimmer to say “The Juice” 12 times an episode, or casting human gif-machine Connie Britton as Faye Resnick, Murphy is winkingly acknowledging that this show has long abandoned any pretence at realism, immersion, seamlessness. But he also invites you to substitute something in their place: might you, in fact, link the simultaneous narcissism and misanthropy of modern celebrity culture (you’re either trying to keep up with the Kardashians, or trying to keep everyone abreast of how much you hate them) with the single event in history that birthed it? In this context, it doesn’t actually bother me that Murphy has distorted facts and recast events and chronologies – it actually means it fits even better into the faintly fever-dream quality of social media celebrity culture, where no headline is too attention-grabbing and no reported fact too improbable.
On the surface, ACS wears its racial politics on its sleeve (in fact, its depiction of the two warring factions outside the courthouse is literally black and white). The commentary isn't as sly, or as trenchant. But one moment in episode five made me think. The jury is set to visit OJ’s house as one of the alleged crime scenes, and Vance’s Johnnie Cochran comes to run a pre-emptive eye over the place. That OJ has been the victim of racially motivated police corruption and falsification of evidence is a cornerstone of the defence’s case, but OJ's house as-is is a monument to vanity and golf days, “a symbol for getting the hell away from other black people as fast as you can”. Cue a montage, played for uneasy laughs, of the most egregious decorations being replaced by objets d'art that will play better with the jury. As a tribal-looking carving and African mask are brought in, Vance coos approvingly: “I like me some blackness”.
For (Vance’s) Cochran, his blackness is not fungible – it is something mutable he can deploy in his service depending on the circumstance. And yet it cuts the other way, too, as we see competing interests nag at him: on one hand, he is a proud, vocal advocate for black rights who has fought for them for decades. On another, he is fighting for his client (“I’m trying to win”) and is not afraid to toy with white guilt and squeamishness around issues of race to advance OJ’s cause (he is the member of the Dream Team who prompts Nathan Lane’s F Lee Bailey to use the n-word, repeatedly, in his questioning of Nazi-medal-polishing Officer Fuhrman). This duality is encapsulated in his relationship with black prosecutor Christopher Darden – at one point throwing him to the press to be savaged as an Uncle Tom; the next telling him to “get the white people” to examine Furhman (his motivation for doing so isn’t clear (at least not yet), but I’m siding with Darden’s father, who frames it as “giving good advice, black man to black man”). The range that this internal conflict demands that Vance brings to the role is considerable; in the sea of rictus botoxed white men around him he is extraordinary, and the fact that such a multifaceted character can exist at the centre of the show suggests it's at least willing to entertain a more nuanced discussion.
Something similar constellates around Sarah Paulson, who plays the doomed head prosecutor Marcia Clark. At first I found it hard to get past the legacy of her string of unsettling performances on American Horror Story, but as the show has rolled on she has emerged from their shadow, slowly at first before going full supernova in the most recent episode, ‘Marcia Marcia Marcia’. That title might just reflect the exigencies of wanting to fit in a decades-old Brady Bunchreference, but in the 50-odd minutes of viewing time Murphy and Paulson do indeed give us three very different perspectives of the demands – unique in the predominantly male context of the show – placed on Clark during the trial: as a wife going through a bitter, spiteful divorce, a mother trying her best to raise her children, and as a female focal point, whether that be as the lead representative of the People in the trial of the decade, the target of various media assaults on her frumpy dress sense, or the no-nonsense lawyer whose attitude means she gets labelled a bitch. Again, some of it is not subtle (100% true: at one point a male checkout assistant notes the Tampax in Clark’s shopping basket and says “Uh-oh – I guess the Defence is in for one hell of a week, huh?”); again, though, just as your eyeball roll is approaching Liz Lemon heights, Murphy does something a little more subtle, like setting up a shot in which Clark must elbow her way past a queue of resentful people to get through the security gate into court, when – minutes later in episode time – we follow the perfectly coiffed hair of probably-OK-definitely-racist cop Mark Fuhrman as he walks to court unimpeded, sidestepping that security gate and taking the shortcut opened up for him by another man.
In an episode that went out in the US on International Women’s Day, this was a quietly devastating moment – not as gut-wrenching as the irony of ‘Kissed By A Rose’ serenading Clark as she gets the perm that launched a thousand gifs, but in its own way more eloquent. It is so like American Crime Story to pull this sort of shit: to beat you over the head with period jokes, but then to do the real damage with a thousand cuts from a far subtler knife. I’m not sure I love or even like this show: too much of it is so high camp that it makes me uncomfortable, like even 20 years on we’re still parasitically feeding off the corpses of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman. It is maddening; the creative choices it makes at times defy belief. But at least it makes those choices, and does so in a way that tells us something about the world in 2016 versus the early 1990s. It is perhaps weird for a show so focused on the past, so clearly, slavishly in love with the 90s (Murphy’s musical cues are the most obvious, joyous expression of this) to feel like the most current show on TV; the troubling conclusion the show leaves you with is that nothing much has changed at all. If it’s not OJ and Robert it’s Kanye and Kim; if it’s not Nathan Lane relating the size of his hands to the size of his cock its likely Republican nominee Donald Trump; if it’s not NWA saying fuck the police it’s Kendrick saying we hate po-po. Are we really going to be alright?