In June 1994, Orenthal James Simpson had been a football hero, then a film star and an American icon, one of the most famous and admired men in the country. Then, after his estranged wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her boyfriend were found brutally murdered, he became perhaps the most famous murder suspect in American history.

This case and its aftermath form the core of The People vs O.J. Simpson: ACS, (SoHo, Wednesdays, 8.30pm) a new anthology series from Ryan Murphy, the pulp auteur behind Nip/Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story.

His art-trash aesthetic has become so admired that he has drawn together a very impressive ensemble cast, including Cuba Gooding Jr as O.J. and John Travolta and David Schwimmer as his lawyers. They're joined by stellar Murphy regulars Connie Britton and Sarah Paulson.

They all play it like a high-grade soap opera, which is about where the story's bones are interred. The show opens with footage of the Rodney King beating and its aftermath, which is both pointed, as that was the racial backdrop in LA, and pointless, as while this crime was committed a few kilometres away, it's also an entirely different world.


Regardless, it's the first and last time the messy business of reality intrudes into the show's vision of Los Angeleno luxury. All the locations reek of the isolating and insulating effect of extreme wealth: the houses hidden behind tall gates and taller trees, the legal teams large and amoral, the victim and suspect's friends drawn from the bottomless pool of the interconnected LA entertainment industry.

Murphy knows this area well, and plays it for merciless black comedy - the only kind he knows. So Schwimmer plays Robert Kardashian as a clueless and easily manipulated wet blanket, who arrives at the crime scene saying "I'm sure I'm on the list". His now-immortal kids are glimpsed at Nicole Simpson's funeral, with Kris yelling "Kourtney, Khloe, stop running! Put away that candy!" for no good reason except a cheap laugh.

Later we see O.J., already in a sedated stupor, free-pouring pills from a bottle alongside a beautiful woman in what is obviously a teenage girl's room. Exactly whose bedroom remains undisclosed until O.J.'s wandering around, sobbing, with a gun to his head, while Robert Kardashian beseeches "please Juice, don't do it in little Kimmy's room!"

David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro.
David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro.

The campier elements work because the thing looks as lush as the Hollywood Hills houses it inhabits, and because the good actors (i.e those who aren't Schwimmer) deliver deeply engaged performances. Paulson, as a chain-smoking DA oblivious to her life falling apart, and Travolta's slick legal mastermind Robert Shapiro are both excellent. Gooding Jr lacks the imposing scale of Simpson, which is distracting, but his wild mood swinging between defiance, anger and dreamy resignation rings true. While he was shrieking, out of control, after blowing a polygraph, I recalled a recent Bill Simmons podcast which speculated about whether Simpson has chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disorder endemic amongst former NFL players. Regardless, Simpson's a long way from his right mind, and those around him are struggling to both be there for a friend and control his wilder impulses.

It's perhaps telling, though, that we end up speculating and sympathising more with the defendant than the victim - her family are barely visible, and we spend most of our time in O.J.'s camp, with a feeling of siege all around. That rises as the case against him becomes more concrete: the black glove, the bloody car, the eye witnesses to agitation a series of hammer blows to the defence.

When the pressure gets too much we see an empty carpark outside Kardashian's mansion, before cutting to that white Bronco, bucking and swerving south down the 710 toward Long Beach, about to become the centre of that brilliantly bizarre slow-motion pursuit.

And despite knowing exactly how it all played out, it's impossible to resist the compulsion to watch it all over again.