The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story goes inside the O.J. Simpson trial with a look at the legal teams battling to convict or acquit Simpson of double homicide. It explores how a combination of prosecution overconfidence, defense shrewdness, and the LAPD’s history with the city’s African-American community gave a jury what it needed: reasonable doubt.
I'm guessing I'm not the only one who thought a miniseries based on the O.J. Simpson trial was a horrible idea. After all, most of us old enough to have lived through it, had already been glued to the television day after day in the mid-90s watching the trial unfold. What dramatization could possibly be as entertaining as those real-life events? Of course, I couldn't have been more wrong. Not only is 'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson' the best dramatic presentation we've seen on TV in 2016, it ranks among the best miniseries ever produced. It's fantastic.
The series is based upon attorney and frequent CNN 'talking head' Jeffrey Toobin's book, 'The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson', and both the book and this miniseries delve into all the behind-the-scenes manipulations that occurred on both the defense and prosecution side of things, as well as the bigger picture: primarily that the trial served as a commentary on the status of race relations in America. In fact, the miniseries opens with video footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, setting the tone for what's to follow.
By far the main reason to watch this miniseries is for the actors, in what may be the best-cast television show in recent memory. Not only are a good half dozen or so of the actors dead ringers for their real-life counterparts, but there are so many outstanding performances here, it's actually difficult for me to pick a favorite.
While stars Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance get the 'flashy' roles, playing prosecution attorney Marcia Clark and defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, respectfully, I think the best performances here actually belong to David Schwimmer and Sterling K. Brown. Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian, a close friend of O.J. who is both devoutly religious and someone who stands firmly behind O.J.'s innocence. As the evidence mounts up, however, we begin to see the toll it's having on Kardashian as he realizes he's being lied to by his best friend. It's a powerful, heartbreaking performance, and one in which Schwimmer may have accomplished something no reality show has been able to do: restore honor to the Kardashian name. As for Brown, he plays prosecution attorney Christopher Darden and looks as if he could be his twin brother. Like Schwimmer's character, Brown's role asks him to go through an internal struggle – having to try and put O.J. away while dealing with the racial issues that are presented in the case – issues that, as an African American, Darden both sympathizes with and understands.
Then there's John Travolta – making a rare appearance in a TV role and actually getting the somewhat thankless assignment of portraying attorney Robert Shapiro, a lawyer who originally defended O.J. (as Simpson was one of his clients beforehand), but gradually lost more and more say in the case as seasoned defense attorneys joined O.J.'s 'Dream Team'. At first, it appears that Travolta is wildly overacting in all of his scenes...until you figure out exactly what he's doing. Shapiro isn't the most interesting of characters, so Travolta plays him over the top, and you soon realize that you can't take your eyes off him every time he's in a scene. It's either the worst performance in this miniseries or the smartest one...perhaps a little of both, but I really enjoyed watching it.
Finally, there's Cuba Gooding Jr., who portrays O.J. Simpson. Ironically, this is the most miscast of all the roles in the series, as Cuba not only doesn't look anything like Simpson, he doesn't even make an attempt to act or sound like O.J. (I think we all can agree Cuba has a much higher pitched voice). The bonus featurette on this release claims that the reason they went with Cuba is because of his wholesome personality: no one would believe that Cuba Gooding Jr. was a killer – and they wanted to have an actor that could convey that same feeling of innocence to the home audience. Thankfully, Gooding is decent enough here (although I have to confess that his is the least appealing performance...even lesser than Travolta's), but I still think he was probably the wrong choice of actors for the role.
As a whole, though, 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' is simply riveting television, and – despite a lack of meaningful bonus materials – this release is a must-have. When I first watched it earlier this year, it was already on-demand, and I literally watched all 10 episodes over a weekend's time. You may find yourself doing the same. That's how addictive and powerful this presentation is. In a time where TV is really producing some great material, this is the gold standard of what can be achieved.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson' acquits itself on Blu-ray in this 3-disc set. The discs are housed inside a standard Elite keepcase, with one disc each on the two inside covers and an attached plastic hub holding the second disc in the set. A single insert contains an advertisement for Jeffrey Toobin's book of the same name (upon which this series is based) on one side, and an ad for FX shows available on home video on the flip side. The reverse side of the keepcase's slick (see from inside the keepcase) contains a list of the episodes and bonus features, including which disc they appear on. A slipcover with artwork matching that of the keepcase's slick slides overtop. The front flap of the slipcover opens to show a timeline of the major events that took place in the case, from the night of the murders to the verdict.
The first disc in this set is front-loaded with an advertisement for other 20th Century Fox shows available on Blu-ray and DVD, a short promo for Jeffrey Toobin's book, and a trailer for American Horror Story: Hotel. The main menu (identical on each disc) consists of a montage of footage from the episodes, with menu selections running horizontally across the bottom of the screen.
Although the box for this release indicates that these are Region A discs, the Blu-rays in this set are actually region-free.
'The People v. O.J. Simpson' was shot digitally on Arri Alexa equipment and is presented here in its original television aspect ratio of 1.78:1. I already own a digital version of this series and I must say, by comparison, the transfer here has a much 'cooler' look. Which is not to say the colors are washed out, they've just been color graded with less of a red push than my digital version.
In terms of detail and quality, though, the transfer of these 10 episodes are close to top-notch. Black levels are nice and deep, facial features are really well-defined, and there's plenty of detail and 'pop' to the overall image. A few small caveats prevent a reference-quality score: first, there's some noticeable aliasing throughout – which isn't too surprising considering the camera is almost always in motion during these episodes. Secondly, a bit of very mild noise does creep into the background of some shots. This is most obvious against solid backgrounds, but it's not obtrusive and probably won't be noticed unless you're specifically looking for it.
There's also the occasional use of archival TV footage during the series, so obviously those moments look their age and the quality of the image (no 1080p TVs or broadcasts in the mid-90s) is about what you'd expect an old standard-def TV image to look like.
Overall, though, these are very nice looking episodes, and viewers should be quite pleased with what they get here in terms of video quality.
The only audio option for each of the 10 episodes on this release is an English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Given all the courtroom scenes during the 10 episodes, you'd be correct in thinking that these are dialogue-heavy tracks, with not a whole lot provided in terms of immersiveness and directionality. Almost all of the dialogue in the series is front and center, but it is clear and crisp, with no signs of muddiness or other glitches.
There are moments throughout, though, when the 5.1 tracks do provide a bit of fun. Anytime the series uses soundtrack music – be it the series' own soundtrack or use of 90's pop music (like when the fourth episode opens with C+C Music Factory's 'Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)') – you can hear the rear speakers come to life. Overall, these are solid tracks that properly convey the audio of the source material.
Subtitles are available for each episode in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
A fantastic, extremely well-acted look at the events of 'The Trial of the Century', 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' is one of those television events that comes along once in a blue moon – it's both engaging and addictive. Much like the real trial itself, you won't be able to take your eyes off it. It's absolutely, 100 percent a must-own on Blu-ray.