But American Crime Story‘s approach to its source material doesn’t just revive our memory of the trial — it actively aims to change it. The character of Marcia Clark is the most obvious example of the series’ revisionism; as the Washington Post‘s Alyssa Rosenberg writes, “Pop culture feasted on [Clark] and has continued to do so as recently as last year,” when Tina Fey portrayed an unflattering and incompetent version of Clark on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Fey’s former workplace also took its fair share of potshots at the lawyer over the years, including a 1996 SNL sketch that featured Nancy Carrell and Tim Meadows as Clark and co-prosecutor Chris Darden. Paulson’s version of Clark seems intended as a corrective to her longstanding public image, an opportunity of which Clark herself is understandably taking full advantage: she’s given interviews over the last several weeks to New York magazine, its pop culture site Vulture, and Slate.
The People v. OJ Simpson nonetheless takes this approach to any number of trial players. Darden, as played by Sterling K. Brown, gets an equally sympathetic portrait; viewers are reminded in the first episode that before OJ, Darden was actually tasked with prosecuting violent cops, and his ambivalence towards both facing off against Cochran, his onetime mentor, and serving as a living embodiment of plausible racial deniability for the DA’s office is underscored throughout. And Cochran himself gets one of the most fascinatingly ambivalent treatments of the entire show. As a man whose genuine fury at the injustice of unchecked LAPD power led to a well-intentioned but still monstrous injustice of its own, he’s almost as much a tragic figure as Clark.
The measured hindsight required for this kind of reevaluation, let alone one that operates on as many fronts as People v. OJ’s, feels like a direct result of the series’ secret ingredient: time. Set just 20 years ago, American Crime Story seems like an unlikely, or even preposterous, candidate for the title of “period piece”; our cultural memory of the ’90s, after all, is mostly stuck in the “remember when” stage, complete with giddy BuzzFeed listicles and winking Shaq cameos on Fresh Off the Boat. But People v. OJ feels like a watershed moment — one of our first works of art to move beyond doe-eyed nostalgia into an unflinching look at what we got wrong.
In this respect, at least, the series is comparable to Mad Men, which combined an aesthetic appreciation for ’60s-era glamor (or, in People v. OJ’s case, ’90s-era glasses and haircuts) with a demonstrated knowledge of the period’s endemic sexism, racism, and general disregard for the public health drawbacks of smoking. The New Yorker ‘s Adam Gopnik once explained Mad Men’s existence, and its success, as the product of the “40-year itch,” in which middle-aged cultural gatekeepers use their power to look back on their own childhoods. Which makes sense for Matthew Weiner, but in the same piece, Gopnik also identified the “20 year-cycle… by which the 40-somethings recall their teenage years.” At the time of the OJ trial, American Crime Story co-writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were in their early 20s.
Not all works of historical fiction accomplish something as impressive or necessary. Downton Abbey, which wrapped up a six-season run on PBS this past Sunday, slipped into paternalistic gown-ogling sometime around Season 3 and stayed there. Yet People v. OJ‘s ability to both spot the complexities those caught up in the media frenzy — which is to say the entire country — couldn’t at the time and connect them to ongoing problems places it among the best period dramas in culture today.