'American Crime Story': Race, Murder and Ryan Murphy's Pulp Nonfiction

Squeezing fresh 'Juice' out of the craziest celebrity trial ever with 'The People v.s O.J. Simpson'

Cuba Gooding Jr., left, and Courtney B. Vance in 'America Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.' Credit: Michael Becker/FX

The moment where The People vs. O.J. Simpson takes off into true brilliance: O.J.'s lawyers get a little bad news. It's June 17, 1994, the day O.J. has agreed to turn himself in for allegedly killing ex-wife Nicole and her waiter. But instead, he's flown the coop for a wild Bronco ride that all America will watch on live TV. John Travolta, as posh Hollywood attorney Robert Shapiro, gets handed a letter by colleague Robert Kardashian, played by David Schwimmer. Not only has the Juice escaped with a gun and his old football buddy Al Cowling (Malcolm-Jamal Warner!) at the wheel, he's not planning to come back alive. He's left a suicide note signed "peace and love," scrawling his name with a smiley face inside the O. Travolta reads it with a look of true horror, muttering, "Jesus Christ — who the hell signs a suicide note with a happy face?"

Let's face it, if the O.J. Simpson case didn't exist, Ryan Murphy would have had to invent it. It's the only murder tale that could live up to his outsized taste for lurid all-American pulp. The ever-prolific TV auteur kicks off his American Crime Story franchise with a superb 10-episode version of the most notorious of celeb homicides, the 1994 bloodbath so perfectly designed for Hollywood that the trial practically invented reality TV. What looked like an open-and-shut case turned into a legal mess tapping into the nation's ugliest obsessions: race, sex, drugs, money, fame. The People vs. O.J. Simpson pulls out all the stops with an all-star cast, turning it into a fascinatingly suspenseful saga even though the murder itself is no mystery. Murphy never questions the premise that O.J. did the killing; the real mystery is how he got away with it.

Every bit player in the O.J. story was desperate to become a star — and as the trial became a media sensation, most of them did. Travolta is surprisingly excellent as Shapiro, even though he looks and talks exactly like John Travolta. (In the summer of 1994, the washed-up Travolta was still a few months away from Pulp Fiction and one of Hollywood's all-time weirdest comebacks.) Billy Magnussen is hilariously dazed and confused as O.J.'s dimwit flunkie Kato Kaelin. But Johnny Cochran steals the show, just as he did in real life — Courtney B. Vance swaggers in style as the celebrity lawyer who sees this case as his biggest score. The first time we see him, he's picking out his wardrobe for the day. "I gotta run out to Neverland," he tells his wife. "MJ's got some new pile of commotions. I can't wear lime — Michael's afraid of that color."

The only weak link is Cuba Gooding Jr, who's pretty terrible — he turns O.J. into a hoarse, feeble hysteric, shrieking things like "The Juice ain't got nothing to hide!" He never comes close to the blandly genial confidence that made O.J. a star for all those years, mugging cheerfully in the Naked Gun movies with no hint of his viciously abusive private life. (Too bad Murphy couldn't get Simpson to play himself.)

But then O.J. always seemed like one of the least interesting characters in this saga, and here he's a minor player surrounded by a swarm of larger-than-life Hollywood hustlers — even Selma Blair as Nicole's BFF Kris Kardashian Jenner, rocking her cleavage at the funeral while yelling at Khloe and Kourtney to put down the candy and behave. Of all only-in-L.A. stories, this is the most only-in-L.A. of them all. And no matter how well you already know the story, The People vs. O.J. Simpson makes you wonder all over again how it possibly happened.