There has been an awakening. Have you felt it? No, not that kind of awakening. This one is taking place on Earth, where our collective, slightly morbid fascination with true crime stories reimagined as classic cliffhanger TV has given us The Jinx, Making A Murderer and Serial in the past year alone, and now delivers fresh juice in the form of The People v. OJ Simpson: American Crime Story.
The People v. Simpson, the court case that inspired FX's thrilling new drama series, was dubbed the "Trial of the Century" at the time, and nothing that followed has come close to matching its tabloid impact or sheer shock factor.
It was credited with the birth of true 24 hour news, and more than just pitting law and justice versus celebrity, it became a window into Black America versus White America. That division had existed for some time but, in the wake of black taxi driver Rodney King's beating at the hands of four white LAPD officers, racial tensions had begun to simmer with some hostility.
It's in this context that controversial writer, director, and producer Ryan Murphy frames this first season of American Crime Story, an anthology series along the lines of American Horror Story (although the two share almost no DNA).
Episode 1 opens with footage of both King's beating and the riots that followed in 1992, successfully establishing one of the more surprising and refreshing aspects of The People vs. O.J., namely that this series is not really interested in solving the mystery of whether or not O.J. killed Nicole. You don't need Ryan Murphy to help you form an opinion on that.
The real story here is the trial itself, the flawed methods of the prosecution and the wildly memorable theatrics of what was almost certainly the best defense team money could buy — and O.J. was swimming in money. That the series's racial subtext is so timely in 2016 is, on the one hand, incredibly depressing, but also lucky for Murphy and co. in that it gives an old, relentlessly discussed story a fresh relevance.
When it comes to The People vs. O.J. Simpson, history is no spoiler. You know how this turns out, but there's a real thrill in watching Simpson's borrowed white Bronco tear down the freeway for the entertainment and/or horror of several million stunned Americans.
This is not a documentary. Some aspects of the story, like that Bronco chase, are faithfully recreated, but others are invented or altogether fictionalized. Did O.J. really put a gun to his head in a young Kim Kardashian's bedroom? Doesn't matter. It could have happened, and that's good enough.
The creative license taken by the script at so many turns is not distracting, and adds a touch of trademark Murphy-ness to this retelling, which could easily have felt like a trashy Lifetime movie but instead has the feel of true watercooler television in the way that little has since True DetectiveSeason 1.
If, somehow, the source material is not reason enough to jump on board, the casting should be. FX has assembled a killer line-up of stars, beginning with Cuba Gooding Jr. as the Juice himself. The two men do not look or sound alike, but Gooding Jr. taps into the magnetism that made Simpson the most famous and beloved athlete in America at that time.
David Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian without the arrogance of a man who owned both a black and a white Rolls Royce, reasonably imagining the lawyer as a man wounded by the accusations against his close personal friend, but not blind to O.J.'s odd behavior or the mounting evidence against him.
Written before Murphy came on board, the razor-sharp script finds pockets of dark humor in the tragedy. At Nicole's funeral service we see Kris Jenner and Faye Resnick (Connie Britton), another friend of the deceased, gossip like starved vultures at a banquet. The casting of Selma Blair as the Kardashian matriarch is so delicious you can't help but hope her role will be expanded, even though Kris was at best a bit-part player in the circus surrounding the trial.
But it's the DA prosecutor Marcia Clark who emerges as the early hero of this tale. Sarah Paulson, whose eccentric work on AHS serves to highlight her vast talent, plays it very straight as Clark, a woman driven equally by her disgust at the way LAPD glossed over Simpson's previous, unreported beatings of Nicole, and her desire to be the one to enact justice. The way her eyes light up when she first receives the call is something to behold.
Adapting the Trial of the Century into a 10-part TV drama was a tall order that could easily have gone horribly wrong, and with John Travolta chewing scenery with such glee, there's every chance it still could. But the early signs are strong that American Crime Story will instead continue to trade on our enduring fascination with both O.J. and true crime to become the television season of the year, if not quite the next hundred.
Episode 2 of The People vs. O.J. Simpson airs Tuesday, 16. Feb on FX, with the cops hot on O.J.'s tail. You'd be crazy to miss it.