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'The People vs. OJ Simpson' is better than it has any right to be
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If you didnt live through the O.J. Trial of the Century, its impossible to know how all-consuming it was in popular culture. It led the news every night and filled TV screens throughout the day. It made Jay Leno a huge star as he paraded his Dancing Itos across the "Tonight Show" stage with alarming frequency. When the world came to halt to watch the jury announce its infamous verdict, some hailed as a victory against racism and corruption in the LAPD, while almost everyone else saw it as a celebrity getting away with murder.

In short, it was a ubiquitous and exhausting spectacle that divided the country by exacerbating racial tensions and distrust in the criminal justice system. I was glad when it was over. Why would anyone want to revisit that whole mess ever again?

Thats the question I asked myself when I heard that FX was making a miniseries about the O.J. trial titled The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. It seemed like it would be a cheap exercise in made-for-TV exploitation. Did we really need to see David Schwimmer aka Ross from Friends as Simpson's lawyer and confidante Robert Kardashian? And John Travolta as head lawyer Robert Shapiro? Isnt that a bad idea?

Well, yes, it is. Travoltas weird performance as Shapiro plays like a bad Joan Crawford impression. But the amazing thing is that the rest of the series is far more compelling than it has any right to be. Schwimmer is actually outstanding as Kardashian, and Cuba Gooding Jr. will likely resurrect his moribund career with his star turn as the "Juice" himself. It seems nobody told these actors that this was supposed to be ridiculous. The result is one of the most riveting television crime dramas I can remember, which is especially remarkable given that it is depicting an incident I was more than happy to forget.

One of the problems with re-enacting historical events is that everyone knows how its going to end, so its next to impossible to sustain any dramatic tension to keep an audience engaged. But People vs. O.J. somehow turns that idea on its head by meticulously re-creating events with which viewers are intimately familiar but have never actually seen. Its one thing, for instance, to watch news footage of the white Ford Bronco on its slow-speed chase, but its quite another to get firsthand access to the back seat of the car where O.J. is sobbing hysterically with a gun to his head. The immediacy makes O.J. a tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions, and the tension is created by the sense of dread you feel in anticipation of whats coming next.

How are they going to handle if it doesnt fit, you must acquit, or Kato Kaelins surfer-dude testimony, or the racist train wreck that is Mark Fuhrman? Knowing the broader facts makes you eager to see how they handle the details you may not have known. The result is that what should be the shows biggest weakness actually becomes its greatest strength.

This series isnt for all audiences, surely. Its rated TV-MA, which is the harshest possible television rating, although I think the content would probably only translate into a PG-13 rating if it were shown in theaters. And if the thought of reliving the O.J. mess turns your stomach like it did mine, maybe you ought to give this one a pass. Because if youre anything like me, if you watch even one episode, youre going to get hooked.
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