'The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story': TV Review

American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson - Still 5- D. Schwimmer and Travolta - H 2016
Courtesy of Ray Mickshaw/FX
The Juice is loose and quite entertaining.

Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance shine while John Travolta stumbles in Ryan Murphy's entertaining drama.

From the moment it was announced, the combination of Ryan Murphy and the O.J. Simpson murder trial sounded perfect. Almost too perfect. The Trial of the Century and the small screen's master of star-studded, twisted sensationalism?

Imagine fetishized creatures clad only in bloody gloves, Dancing Itos swaying to a big-band beat and a Greek chorus of Kardashians serving as moral arbiters of our society in decline.

Only one of those nightmares actually comes into play in FX's new anthology The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, which often feels like an elaborate stunt, but still ekes out ample nuance, humanity and humor, despite a couple clunky performances that threaten to spin the series into the realm of camp.

Read more Inside TV's Retrial of O.J. Simpson

The first thing to remember, either for information or reassurance, is that while American Horror Story maestros Murphy and Brad Falchuk are executive producers here, the new series was adapted by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski from Jeffrey Toobin's The Run of His Life. Alexander and Karaszewski (Ed Wood) know how to build the architecture of an informative biopic like few others, and the chronicle of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the arrest of NFL legend and occasional movie star O.J. Simpson and the trial, televised obsessively over much of 1995, has a sturdy foundation before Murphy and a team of respected directors take over.

The People v. O.J. establishes quick context with footage of the 1992 Rodney King beating, inflaming officer acquittals and subsequent riots, before unfolding the drama, starting in June 1994, on three tiers: There's the LAPD investigating the horrifying double murder — discussed, but treated with astounding visual restraint — and beginning to follow the clues leading to one of the country's most famous men, with D.A. Gil Garcetti (Bruce Greenwood) entrusting Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) with bringing the case home. Then you have O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr. mostly eschewing a physical or vocal impression) experiencing the collapse of his carefully constructed public image, amidst growing accusations of spousal battery and then murder. Finally, you get the battle of egos and strategies from Simpson's all-star defense team, which included Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) and, to some perplexing degree, Simpson's friend Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), who wasn't even licensed to practice when the case began.

It's been 20-plus years since these events. A generation has grown up knowing Simpson not for his Heisman or his rent-a-car commercials, but as a perpetual and unapologetic defendant. But for older audiences, this is a saga of indelible moments: a white Bronco easing down an evacuated freeway, a glove that stubbornly refused to fit, a verdict that ground everyday life to a halt. Murphy's challenge is in honoring the things we remember or think we remember, but also in honoring that triggered nostalgia with new details or dimensions. Visually, it's a smart mixture, re-creating familiar visuals — press conferences, iconic photos — but trying to bring us inside the luxury mansions, inside that white Bronco, inside the conference rooms adjacent to the courtroom that usurped afternoon soaps for millions of daytime TV viewers.

The People v. O.J. has a welcomely, wonky interest in the legal process, which is the best thing that could happen to the series in this era of Serial and The Jinx and Making a Murderer. Murphy, so frequently a master of visceral and emotional manipulation, proves adept at following systematic manipulation, whether it's in jury selection, evidence presentation or witness wrangling. The by-any-means-necessary push and pull between the defense and prosecutors seems to confirm that no matter your feelings on Simpson's guilt or innocence, justice had only a little to do with what unfolded.

Critics have seen six episodes, and as the series progresses, Paulson and Vance emerge as the clear leads within the ensemble.

There's a real sympathy that Paulson generates as Clark goes from cocky and confident to increasingly desperate as a slam-dunk conviction turns into a referendum on her hairstyle, demeanor and personal life. As Clark's discomfort grows, Paulson's collection of tics seem more and more human, and she has a fantastic foil in Sterling K. Brown's Christopher Darden, who is on track to become the show's moral center and the clearest window into understanding the differences between perceptions of Simpson in the African-American community and within the establishment.

Vance has the great challenge of playing a man who was almost indistinguishable from subsequent caricatures. What makes Vance's Cochran so interesting is that the scripts give him room to explore which parts of his schtick were public theater and which pieces were true commitment to fighting injustice. Vance's Cochran is sometimes hilarious, but he has a dynamic range such that he's occasionally introspective and always intelligent as well. A string of fine character performances surround Vance on Simpson's Dream Team, including an understatedly Machiavellian Lane as F. Lee Bailey and an almost unrecognizable Evan Handler as Alan Dershowitz.

Viewers will likely be split on Schwimmer's Kardashian. This is a man whose main role in these events was not quite belonging, and Schwimmer captures that uncertainty perfectly. It's a simple joke to cast an actor best known as TV's most awkward Friend as a man best known as Simpson's least famous friend, but the Schwimmer/Kardashian "What is he doing here?" intersection works.

Read more FX's 'American Crime Story': Season 2 Plan Revealed

The origin story cutaways to the Kardashian kids, still giddy at hearing their name on TV and still stoked to get special treatment at Chin Chin, will feel tacked on and overreaching to some, but I bought the notion of the Simpson trial being the nuclear sludge from which Godzilla Kim emerged. The idea of Kardashians as wide-eyed innocents, unwittingly changing as they become part of the celebrity industrial complex, may be the most revolutionary perspective here.

Speaking of giant, destruction-prone behemoths, the performance that threatens to undo The People v. O.J. belongs to Travolta, the only actor powerful enough to earn a producer credit here. Despite ample evidence of how Shapiro looked and talked, Travolta has built a mesmerizingly bad performance from the eyebrows down. His unnecessary accent varies by episode, and Travolta's laser intensity feels arch and almost kabuki at times, turning Shapiro into a terrifying character from the next American Horror Story installment, rather than a part of this ensemble. Were Shapiro a smaller part of this story, Travolta wouldn't be a distraction, since Connie Britton's Faye Resnick, Billy Magnussen's Kato Kaelin and Selma Blair's Kris Kardashian are at the same pitch, but they're background color, not ostensible leads.

With ESPN giving Simpson an extended 30 for 30 treatment this summer, this is a time for reexamining the Juice. In The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, Murphy, Alexander, Karaszewski and much of the cast give entertaining voice to the outrage and the obsession and some of the real people involved.