1. AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. OJ SIMPSON (FX)
I had to be forced to watch the premiere of this show, as one glimpse in the trailers of John Travolta’s take on Robert Shapiro as some sort of martian diva seemed to confirm all my doubts about Ryan Murphy’s primature. The man has a brand, and whatever you think of its merits, it seemed a match made in lurid, tasteless hell for the true story of the most lurid, tasteless debacle of American criminal justice in the last quarter century.
So I was shocked as anyone when the results were anything but lurid or tasteless. While tackling difficult issues of race, sexism, celebrity and police misconduct with frankly shocking maturity and sensitivity, the show simultaneously recasts figures long ago rendered into SNL punchlines as deeply empathetic figures caught up in a circus so ludicrous and fraught that even the most consummate showmen among them are just hanging on for dear life. Courtney B. Vance found the humanity and genuine activist beneath Johnny Cochrane’s courtroom MC persona, Sterling Brown made Chris Darden’s bungling of the prosecution into the tragedy of a conflicted man who was just a little too intelligent to ignore the broader implications of the job he’d been tapped to do, and even David Schwimmer found genuine emotion and 67 different shades of mournfulness with which to pronounce the word “Juice”.
But the standout among the standouts was Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark, even before 2016 worked it’s shitty magic to somehow make the spectacle of her failures even more resonant, as Travolta’s orange-hued cartoon caricature stumbled and preened his way to an unlikely, unpopular victory by crassly exploiting racial anxieties and, most especially, America’s fervent, bone-deep hatred of any woman who has the audacity to be a sedately professional public servant. There was no greater actor’s showcase, or hour of drama (give or take a Game Of Thrones finale), than “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”, which dove deep into the constant crush of horrendous sexism that Clark was forced to shoulder through from the opposition, the press, the public and her own side, just to do the kind of difficult, thankless job that people only notice when it gets messed up. Looking back on The People Vs. OJ, with its acidic examinations of the broader fallout of racist policing, the way celebrity perverts the integrity of our legal systems, the complicity of the press in that, and the intensity of the societal pushback against women who overreach professionally, it’s stunning that it was produced at the beginning of 2016, and not in reaction to it.
Watch It For: The best use of the episodic TV format this year. With the Netflix “13 hour movie” model ascendant, OJ used the hourlong structure to present a wonderfully kaleidoscopic view of one central narrative. Such that in addition to the “Marcia” hour, you had an entire intense hour devoted to the Bronco chase, and one given over to the compellingly loopy perspective of the seemingly-eternally sequestered jury. I’ll sometimes talk about Game Of Thrones as being 12 different shows connected by a theme song, but OJ managed to be 10 different, complete shows, all of them entertaining and compelling in their own way, in a much more compressed timeframe.