With only the season finale left, my latest pop culture obsession is FX's “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.”
I didn’t expect to like this series. I didn't think there were depths left to plumb.
I didn't see all the tendrils that spiral out to the modern day, the way it helped spawn reality TV and gave us the Kardashians. It's astute in noting the racial divide between the police and the people given the Black Lives Matter movement.
What's made it compelling is that in addition to a puzzling nostalgia for slow, white Bronco chases, the Ryan Murphy-created series has developed the courtroom players into rich, three-dimensional people.
The show aims for factual, down to the placement of props and clothes worn, but takes fictional liberties, too, such as the departure of prosecutor Bill Hodgman (Christian Clemenson) or the most recent episode’s meltdown between prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance).
But perhaps the character and, appropriately, the real-life figure who benefits most from revisiting the “trial of the century” is prosecutor Marcia Clark, played by Sarah Paulson.
It’s difficult to single out one actor or actress in an ensemble that includes Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson, John Travolta as defense lawyer Bob Shapiro and Nathan Lane as defense attorney F. Lee Bailey among other familiar faces, but Paulson’s work on “American Crime Story” is exemplary. It’s an engrossing performance that deftly balances the ferocity required to try a double-murder with sympathetic moments that flesh out her character.
“She delivered the feelings on the inside so beautifully, with so much nuance,” the real Clark told New York magazine earlier this year.
In another interview with Vulture, Clark showed surprise that the show delved into that balance.
“It's a murder trial and it's not a dinner party,” she said. “At the end of the day, at the end of the trial, I was in a lose-lose position. If I go soft-voiced and, you know, very ladylike, they call me a cream puff and say, 'She's not up to the task.' I go in and I'm tough and I'm strong and I'm a b----.”
Although having such a capable actress play Clark’s role helps, Murphy and the other writers behind the show have offered a much more sympathetic perspective of Clark than there was when the trial unfolded. One episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” put the spotlight on Clark, showing a system and a trial beating her down so that even her hairstyles were matters of national debate and discussion.
Going through a divorce at the time of the trial, the episode shows Clark dealing with that battle in addition to finding a schedule to take care of her children and just the general sexism of her job.
But time and the show have warmed up to a viewpoint on Clark as a feminist heroine. In fact, the show made this claim unabashed in its most recent episode.
“Women who work in male dominated-professions, I think, are tougher than most,” said Judge Lance Ito (Kenneth Choi), cutting to Clark in case viewers didn’t pick up the subtlety. Ito was speaking of his wife, who was the subject of a recorded tirade by a witness, Officer Mark Fuhrman (Steven Pasquale).
The lens changed focus, shifting to Darden just behind her then cutting quickly back to Ito to finish his thought. “And if they are successful, they are almost always targets for this kind of treatment,” he said before the angle switches back again to Clark, seated at the table.
It was the show laying bare its agenda, but it's provided a fresh view on a trial and a moment in time that ripples out to today.
Although – spoiler alert – the trial did not end in Clark's favor, the real Clark has gone on to a new career as a crime fiction writer.
With the verdict remaining in the season finale set to air Tuesday, much like the process to get there, it won't be the outcome that is amusing, but the journey there that makes the show worth watching.
Thanks to performance's such as Paulson's, it's been a slow, white Bronco journey worth revisiting.
Trailer for the season finale: