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What Can We Learn from FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story?

Ryan Murphy's new miniseries is riveting

Liz Raftery

Think you know all there is to know about O.J. Simpson's 1995 murder trial? FX's The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story will almost certainly prove you wrong.

Based on Jeffrey Toobin's exhaustive chronicle The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson, the 10-episode docudrama is, on the one hand, a riveting true crime tale, anchored by grade-A performances and a sense of gravitas rarely seen from executive producer Ryan Murphy. But more importantly - and just as entertainingly - it's also an examination of the hot-button issues such as race, class and celebrity that turned an open-and-shut case into anything but.

For better or worse, the narrative feels timeless. The racially-based animus between members of the Los Angeles Police Department and the black citizens they were meant to be protecting mirrors today's Black Lives Matter demonstrations against police brutality. It's easy to forget that the events being depicted took place more than 20 years ago. (As if to remind us, Murphy and Co. opt for several - comical, if superfluous - scenes of the Kardashian children as precocious youngsters cheering on their dad as he gets his first taste of fame.)

VIDEO: The stars of The People v. O.J. Simpson reveal how they got into character

In typical Murphy fashion, the underlying themes are not presented subtly. Episode 1 opens with footage of the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots, setting the tone for the tense environment in which Simpson's trial took place three years later. But the American Horror Storycreator also does an excellent job of creating tension and suspense, despite it being almost unfathomable that anyone tuning in won't know how the story turns out.

"It definitely goes deeper than anything I think anybody's been exposed to," Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays Simpson, tells TVGuide.com. "You can either believe he's innocent or guilty, but at the end of these 10 episodes you will understand how they came up with a not guilty verdict. I think if that happens, then we did our job."

Adds executive producer Nina Jacobson: "At the time that the trial happened, I don't think any of us could see beyond our own opinion. I think right now is a particularly important time to understand both sides of this case, because we live in a very polarizing time where people almost take great pride in not understanding the other side of a conversation. There's so much compassion and emotional accessibility to the characters on both sides of this trial that our hope was that people would be able to at least understand why the case was so divisive."

5 reasons The People v. O.J. Simpson is riveting TV

About those characters: For viewers of a certain age, American Crime Story will evoke a sense of nostalgia, a reconnecting with old friends who were a daily fixture on afternoon TV for the better part of a year. Sarah Paulson, a frequent muse of Murphy's, is the standout as prosecutor Marcia Clark, the assistant district attorney who knows O.J. from his Hertz commercials rather than the football field, and whose personal and professional downfall as the trial progresses is Shakespearean. Clark's simmering outrage is tempered by Sterling K. Brown's unassuming performance as her softspoken, conflicted partner, Christopher Darden. (With the benefit of hindsight, it's also cringe-worthy to watch some of the decisions made by the overconfident prosecutors that later proved to be their undoing.)

On the opposing side, Courtney B. Vance pulls off the impressive feat of de-cartoonifying Johnnie Cochran and shows us a more human side of the attorney, while John Travolta turns in a deliciously campy performance as Cochran's counterpart (and the story's chief villain), Robert Shapiro. David Schwimmer, meanwhile, offers a deer-in-headlights take on Simpson's naïve best friend-turned-lawyer, Robert Kardashian.

The People v. O.J. Simpson: O.J. pulls a gun in Kim Kardashian's childhood bedroom

Among the main cast, there's only a disconnect when it comes to Gooding, whose solid performance as Simpson is hindered by the fact that he bears basically no physical resemblance to the ex-footballer. In Gooding's portrayal, the first time we see Simpson - as he's getting into a limo to be driven to the airport the night of the murders - he's quietly wearing his fame (or is it ... his guilt?) like chainmail. But in the majority of subsequent scenes, he comes off more like a petulant child throwing a high-pitched tantrum, rather than an imposing former NFL player who may or may not be having a post-homicidal breakdown.

To be clear, this is no Making a Murderer - anyone who's unconvinced about Simpson's culpability in the brutal killings of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman will have a hard time refuting the amount of evidence laid forth in American Crime Story. But, for viewers who can't understand to this day how a jury could have possibly acquitted Simpson, the answer may become clearer.

"It's an important time for us to pay attention to the very significant divides [that] still exist, in how we experience justice based on the color of our skin," Jacobson tells TVGuide.com. "To have an event that people remember so well and that is such a shared cultural event that points to those fault lines creates an opportunity to talk about them. ...It's kind of remarkable how much more you can understand something with some distance than I think any of us were able to fully understand it at the time."

The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story premieres Tuesday at 10/9c on FX. Will you watch?