Ryan Murphy, the man who gave us the melodic horrors of Glee and the twisted glee of American Horror Story, is either the exact right man to tackle the The People v. O.J. Simpson (Tuesdays, FX, 10 pm) or the exact wrong one.
To tell the tale of football great O.J. Simpson's trial accurately, you have to don both the masks of tragedy and comedy. This is, after all, a story about a murder, about the gory deaths of Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend Ron Goldman. But it's also a story about what happens when justice collides with celebrity, and celebrity — not O.J. Simpson, but the concept of celebrity itself — comes out the winner.
In the second part, Murphy excels: His reputation for self-aware camp, full of scenery-chewing actors playing zany archetypes, works perfectly when the tale takes trashy tabloid turns. If The People v. O.J. Simpson has a soapy sheen, it's because from 1994 to 1996, the Simpson trial was America's soap opera.
At times, Murphy takes this idea too far — a scene with Simpson friend Robert Kardashian lecturing his daughters on the dangers of fame practically comes with an audible rimshot — but mostly, the series' utter lack of subtlety is a strength. Themes and character motivations are hammered home, driving the story forward with a thrilling momentum.
Yet when it comes time to dive into the really weighty stuff — two people are dead, for Chrissakes — the series falters. The infamous low-speed chase, where a suicidal O.J. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.) was holding a friend at gunpoint, forcing him to drive his white Bronco, should be exciting, heartbreaking and fascinating. Instead, it all falls flat, with a mishmash of different perspectives killing any buildup in suspense.
The People v. O.J. Simpson is far more effective at getting viewers to identify with the ambitions of high-priced attorneys, rather than the grief of mourning families or the anxiety of a celebrity defendant. Instead, the paparazzi lens of The People v. O.J. Simpson loses focus whenever it looks at either O.J. or "the people."