THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY -- Pictured: Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran CR: Michael Becker/FX Networks

THE PEOPLE v. O.J. SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY — Pictured: Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran CR: Michael Becker/FX Networks

I remember where I was when I heard that OJ Simpson had been found not guilty of the slayings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her beau, Ronald Goldman. I was in the hallways of my middle school on the way to Social Studies with one of my favorite teachers, Mr Rhodes, when the loudspeaker announced for “Nora Gumble” to come to the office. We didn’t have a Nora Gumble in the building at the time; it was our weird public middle school’s way of announcing the verdict without flat out saying it (we immediately put the news on in the SS class, anyway, so their attempt to mask it was absurd).  The point there, though, is that this moment was one of those “Where were you when this big pop culture event happened” things for my generation; and in THE PEOPLE V OJ SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (premiering tonight on FX (at 10/9c)), we get to see a dramatized (but rooted in facts and minutiae of the trial) retelling of the trial from the perspective of the, in many cases, woefully under-prepared lawyers that guided the year-long trial to its controversial end.

Written by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who adapted the book “The Run of His Life: The people v. OJ Simpson” by Jeffrey Toobin, in connection with Ryan Murphy and his usual producing partners (Murphy directed the surprisingly nuanced pilot episode that airs tonight), the show opens with footage of the LA race riots that of the early 90s.  The comparisons that would be made to how the police treated their ‘god-like’ OJ Simpson vs how they treated Rodney King, just years prior, would ultimately cause just some of the controversy that surrounded the circus of a trial, which included big “names” like Kato Kaelin (who recently appeared on FX in another capacity, singing the National Anthem prior to Renoir’s debut on BASKETS and played here by Billy Magnussen, killing it), Faye Resnick (now making appearances on some RHOBH episodes and played with relish by Connie Britton), and a fame-obsessed Judge (Lance Ito, played with aplomb by Kenneth Choi), to say the very least.

The show works best by introducing us first to the veritable never-ending cast of characters that captured the world’s attention in the middle of the 90s, and then scaling down to focus on how the trial played out through many fewer perspectives.  One of the first announced cast members, Sarah Paulson, is at a career best as Marcia Clark, the tough as nails prosecutor who thought she had a slam dunk of a case (the blood evidence alone), but whose ultimate undoing was a defense team of 50,000* people who knew how to appeal not only to the facts of the case, but to the people, the jury, the media, you name it. She wasn’t ready for the media scrutiny that came with this high profile case, and the show, through Paulson’s performance, does a great job of creating sympathy for this dragon-lady that was called a bitch more than once throughout the length of the case. *rough estimate

Cuba Gooding, Jr, here playing Juice himself (OJ), toes the line between mournful ex-husband who just lost the mother of his youngest children, wildly emotional ex-football player who has a temper that’s not lost on everyone around him, and man who buys just a bit too much his own fame. As his reactions and responses grow more incendiary with every interaction, the writing and performances do a good job of evoking sympathy for him, for what he lost, for the situation he found himself in.  Sterling K Brown’s Christopher Darden, the man often labeled “token black man” on the prosecution’s team and who struggled with moving out from under the wing of his mentor Johnnie Cochran, is giving a nuanced performance that I never want to stop watching.

Speaking of Johnnie Cochran, the man who infamously announced “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” Courtney B Vance disappears so seamlessly into the role of the bombastic lawyer who caused friction among OJ’s many defense attorneys, you feel like you are watching the larger-than-life personality at work, using confusion, skepticism, and more, to shake us all into thinking along a different narrative. More than anything, David Schwimmer surprised me as a shell-shocked Robert Kardashian. Before there was Kimye or 800 Kardashian TV shows, there was a man whose best friend was accused of a horrific double homicide, and he plays the role with certain gravitas not expected from the-man-formerly-known-as-Ross-Gellar (really, it’s heartbreaking watching him realize Juice might not have been who he thought).  The rest of the cast, including John Travolta, doing a large over-the-top performance as LegalZoom founder Robert Shapiro, the celebrity-lawyer who enjoyed telling stories of his many celebrity clients, were perfectly cast, as we watch how the murders, the investigation, and the ultimate verdict affected their lives (Selma Blair should always play Kris-Jenner-like characters. Always).

What I expected to be an absurd look at the trial that captured everyone’s attention, in the vein of GLEE and SCREAM QUEENS that we’ve come to expect from Ryan Murphy’s not always (never?) subtle world, proved to be captivating, fascinating, and brilliantly performed (at least through 6 episodes made available to press).  The show deals with many of our current hot button issues – sexism, racism, celebrity, media, the justice system – and helps us to learn more about how they impacted the uneven trial.  Big moments are focused on – OJ being questioned the day after the murder, the Bronco chase that interrupted the NBA finals in 1994, OJ’s infamous temper, the big names we know – but it also focuses on the small moments we may not remember or have ever heard, like finding out OJ failed a poly in the days leading up to his arrest or that before the Bronco chase, there was the rumored threat of suicide in “Kimmie’s” bedroom (a fact Robert Kardashian mentioned years after the fact).

The writing, performances, direction, bits of history, and stylized exploration of the people who we met 20 years ago show that the creative teams involved did their research in an effort to get people thinking.  I came away knowing a little bit more about everyone; understanding just a bit more about what happened two decades ago, but still wondering exactly how so many people could have gotten so many things wrong.

Please do yourselves a favor and watch this one!