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TV review: 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' a fun ride with stellar cast

February 1, 2016 Updated: March 3, 2016 at 1:37 pm
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THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY "From the Ashes of Tragedy" Episode 101 (Airs Tuesday, February 2, 10:00 pm/ep) -- - Pictured: (l-r) John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson. CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX

"The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story"

Cast: John Travolta ("Saturday Night Fever," "Grease"), Cuba Gooding Jr. ("Jerry Maguire," "Boyz in the Hood"), Sarah Paulson ("American Horror Story," "Game Change"), David Schwimmer ("Friends," "Madagascar"), Courtney B. Vance ("Terminator Genisys," "Joyful Noise"), Sterling K. Brown ("Army Wives")

Airs: The series premiere airs at 8 p.m. Tuesday on FX.

The premise: Based on the book "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson" by Jeffrey Toobin, the FX limited series "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" takes a detailed look at the trial of the century. The program follows the path of the Simpson trial from the death of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman in June 1994 to the not-guilty verdict read on October 1995. Events in and out of the courtroom are covered in this comprehensive story.

Highs: While there have been some cheesy movie-of-the-week features on the Simpson trial, nobody has addressed this event with as much gravitas as FX. The tone, sets and even the wardrobe evoke the feel and tension of mid-1990s Los Angeles. And though the trial happened more than 20 years ago, this series manages to both be familiar and fresh. Long- forgotten details such as there being two white Ford Broncos (Al Cowling had his own), Simpson initially not wanting Johnnie Cochran on his legal team and Christopher Darden being reluctant to put Mark Fuhrman on the stand add to the complexity of the story.

Helping tell this sordid tale is a first-rate ensemble cast. Just about every actor shines, but several stand out. David Schwimmer portrays Robert Kardashian as a devoted father and blindly loyal friend. When talking to his kids (Yes, those kids) about Simpson he refers to him as "Uncle O.J." and genuinely believes in his innocence. John Travolta's Robert Shapiro is a celebrity lawyer in every sense of the word. The name-dropping litigator has connections with everyone in Hollywood, but is in over his head when it comes to a murder trial.

The performances of Sarah Paulson and Courtney B. Vance are exemplary. Paulson is captivating as Marcia Clark, the deputy assistant attorney who is intelligent, ambitious and hard-working but is emotionally unprepared for the media onslaught. We see Clark engage in a custody battle, receive unsolicited advice from co-workers about her appearance and get slammed by the media for how she dresses. Paulson plays Clark with grace and grit. Vance's take on Johnnie Cochran is equally brilliant. At first glance Cochran appears to be all style and no substance, but Vance shows a man who is not only a gifted orator but also a clever courtroom tactician.

Paulson and Vance are the deserving center of the first six episodes I watched, but excellent performances from Cuba Gooding Jr. (O.J. Simpson), Sterling K. Brown (Chris Darden) and smaller but no less important contributions from Nathan Lane (F. Lee Bailey), Connie Britton (Faye Resnick), Selma Blair (Kris Jenner), Bruce Greenwood (Gil Garcetti), Kenneth Choi (Judge Lance Ito) and others make for a compelling series.

Lows: The Clark/Darden romance lacks spark and I guiltily laughed at seeing the Kardashian children being portrayed as fame hungry at a young age - but these are minor quibbles. I devoured the episodes FX provided me in one sitting, that's how impressive this series is. But can "American Crime Story" can finish what it started? The meat and potatoes of this show is what happens in between the arrest and the verdict. Will there be a satisfying conclusion even though we know the results of the trial? Only time will tell, but from what I've seen so far I'm willing to stick with it and find out.

The verdict: I came into this limited series with low expectations. When this show was first announced I kept track of the steadily impressive roster of actors being signed on but still felt disinterested. Seeing stills of Travolta with the Robert Shapiro eyebrows made it seem like this was a series that was going be over the top. This had to be camp! I couldn't have been more wrong. A stellar cast, deft storytelling and the drama of a trial that polarized America make for compelling television 21 years later.

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Gazette media columnist Terry Terrones is a member of the Television Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter at

@terryterrones.

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