Heading into Tuesday's final installment of "American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson," there is no need for a spoiler alert: The jury will find the former football star not guilty of killing his ex-wife and a young waiter.
But that knowledge almost certainly won't lessen the tension leading to the moment that capped the so-called Trial of the Century, which forever changed the lives of the main players in the courtroom – and altered the media and conceptions of celebrity while exposing racial divisions in Los Angeles and far beyond.
The 10-part FX miniseries succeeded in not only recreating the events surrounding the 1994 slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman with uncanny accuracy, but also in reminding us why case gripped the nation. The search for the "real killer" (as Simpson infamously put it post-verdict) became less a quest for truth than a battle to control the narrative of an American icon charged with a horrible act. The team behind "The People v. O.J. Simpson" seized this American crime story and told it masterfully.
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The period after the murders brought TV movies and a slew of books, including Jeffrey Toobin's standout "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson," which provided much of the source material for the series. But perhaps two decades were needed to put the trial and its divisive verdict into perspective.
The drama is cloaked in the context of the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the LAPD cops caught on video beating motorist Rodney King. The King case carries a renewed resonance at a time when videos capturing police brutality play a major role in the national discussion of race.
Images of the King and Simpson sagas still strike nerves. But "The People v. O.J. Simpson" also finds power in raw language. Sure, the F-word makes occasional, jarring basic cable appearances, but it's the N-word that takes center stage. The vile epithet is uttered in different contexts, but none more viscerally sickening as when spewed by Detective Mark Fuhrman, the rogue cop portrayed by the defense as having framed Simpson, pushing a mountain of evidence out of the picture.
Steven Pasquale chillingly portrays Fuhrman as a seeming straight arrow who harbors warped views. Pasquale’s performance is among many that lend latter-day nuance to real-life characters who most people only saw through the lens of a televised trial.
Prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) is caught between sexism (her changing hairstyle garnered outsized media attention) and her own stubbornness (she insisted on using Fuhrman as a witness, despite warnings from co-counsel Chris Darden). Darden, as played by Sterling K. Brown, is caught between worlds and some pride of his own (he lets the defense goad him into the blunder of making Simpson put on the tell-tale bloody leather gloves in court).
Original lead defense lawyer Robert Shapiro, as portrayed by John Travolta, balances a huge ego against bigger fears the trial will ignite King-like riots. Nathan Lane sweeps proto celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey through a blustery last hurrah.
Emmy time could belong to Paulson and Courtney B. Vance, whose Johnnie Cochran passionately wants to right the wrongs of a skewed legal system, but is driven most by a desire to win. Cuba Gooding, Jr., returns to Oscar-winning form as Simpson, who goes from sad and suicidal to taking control of his fate as he did on the gridiron, charging through when he catches a glimpse of daylight.
The deepest character, though, may be a Kardashian: family patriarch and loyal Simpson pal Robert Kardashian. David Schwimmer makes Kardashian a surrogate for much of a public that initially couldn't believe Simpson capable of double murder, but began to doubt the beloved athlete and TV pitchman amid physical evidence and revelations of spousal abuse.
The Simpson case, with its portrayal of the Hollywood lifestyle and its introduction of the Kardashian kids, presaged Reality TV. Its surreal moments, filled with spectacle (the slow-speed Bronco chase), catchphrases ("If it doesn't fit you must acquit") and dubious comedy (Jay Leno's "Dancing Itos") amounted to a multi-ring circus that made it all too easy at times to forget about the victims.
"The People v. O.J. Simpson" captures all this, perhaps most effectively with occasional shots showing how it all looked on TV. The drama transcends mere mimicry, even if those of us who spent time in the courtroom can be forgiven for doing constant double takes at Kenneth Choi’s dead-on portrayal of Judge Lance Ito.
Everybody in the Simpson soap opera had a story – the lawyers, the judge, the witnesses, the jury, the victims' families and anyone who ever paid even the slightest attention to the trial. But "American Crime Story" took over the narrative, imbuing a TV drama with more verisimilitude, in some respects, than the televised trial, even if the truth remains a matter of debate.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.