A strange thing happens over the first six episodes of Ryan Murphy’s star-studded “The People v. O.J. Simpson”: It becomes less Ryan Murphy-y. That’s a steep hill to come down from. A wackadoodle TV and film maven second only in nuttiness to Lee Daniels, Murphy goes either full tilt boogie weird (“American Horror Story”) or full tilt boogie wan (“Eat Pray Love,” “A Normal Heart”). There is little in between, as then he wouldn’t be Ryan Murphy.
As it begins, the first season of “American Crime Story” — next year brings us his thoughts on Katrina, so just you wait — is very much the former, portraying the Trial of the (Last) Century as a hunk of kitsch on par with a lamp whose stand is a lady’s fishnet-encased leg. As the Juice, Cuba Gooding Jr. is either sunken or gesticulating madly, as though channeling Sean Penn’s “Mystic River” freak-out but times 10. John Travolta plays Robert Shapiro like a preening ghoul. David Schwimmer goes full camp as Robert Kardashian, begging O.J. not to shoot himself in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom. Billy Magnussen’s Kato Kaelin is everything. It’s all very entertaining, but in a way that makes one feel dirty and dumber having watched it.
The seeds for something more thoughtful begin with the recreation of the white Bronco chase, which opens the second episode. Instead of playing up the cheese of the drama, Murphy, who directed a handful of the episodes, plays it cool, delighting in showing how one of TV’s biggest-ever moments slowly intruded on everyday life. It’s still corny: It slips in the day’s other big events — Arnold Palmer’s retirement; the NBA Finals game that went on concurrently, while everyone was glued to other stations — clumsily and cornily. (A great doc — Brett Morgen’s “June 17, 1994,” made for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series — already touched on this subject, and with far superior technical elan.) But you can sense a show wanting to get away from its creator and become something more, maybe even something useful.
Luckily it’s a collaboration. The screenwriters are Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, they of self-aware rebel biopics, like “Ed Wood” and “The People Vs. Larry Flynt.” Initially you may wonder why their names are in the credits. But it becomes evident as the story snakes into the nitty-gritty of the case. They don’t pick sides, not even (at least in the six episodes made available to press) about whether they think O.J. is or isn’t guilty. Instead they use the even-handedness to comment on race and gender and inequality.
Figures transformed through the media filter into walking jokes — perm-tastic pro Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), catchphrase machine Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance) — come back down to earth, becoming deeply sympathetic figures plagued by judgmental and sexist press (her) and bigoted police officers (him). Even Travolta’s vampiric Shapiro becomes tragic, booted from the top spot of Simpson’s “Dream Team” and lost amidst the carnival. This is also to say the onetime Vincent Vega’s screentime lessens, which is itself tragic, given his last prominent work was in Oliver Stone’s whatzit “Savages,” from 2012, in which he barely had a part.
It’s still trash. Murphy and his fellow directors prefer the alternately emphatic and flat language of speedy television directing, always up for a melodramatic dolly-in as an actor, even the respectable Paulson, is forced to fire off a telenova-like proclamation. Schwimmer’s Kardashian begins the third episode with an instant bad TV classic speech that begins, “We are Kardashians.” Kris Jenner (Selma Blair!) is a one-joke baddie, as is Judge Ito (Kenneth Choi), who’s reduced to a mere fame whore.
It will play things hot but then play things cool, play things with empathy then play things cruel. It’s a show at war with itself, but as it goes on the side of taste and intelligence slowly begins to slightly best its love for pure, unadulterated, not-unentertaining trash. We know how the story ends, but not which side the show will take — whether it will view O.J. winning the battle (getting acquitted) but losing the war (being seen as a nut who got free then wound up in jail anyway) as good or bad, or somewhere in between. And it’s not clear if “O.J. Simpson” will live on as trenchant commentary on undying American inequality or as a goldmine for hilarious gifs. It’s not as thrilling as the trial itself, but it’s still nail-biting television. Stay tuned for further developments.