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.