By now you’ve likely already heard that FX presented one of the best TV shows of the year so far—and one which we’ll likely be talking about for years to come—with The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson), the addictive and brilliantly directed series proves that executive producer Ryan Murphy can be trusted with, well, just about anything. After last week’s finale, “The Verdict,” one can only hope that the great Anthony Hemingway, Murphy and John Singleton will all get behind the camera together again for the next season, which will take on one of the greatest American crimes in history, Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Nearly everyone involved in this project contributed to each masterful episode, but there were a few performances that brought the series its most unforgettable moments. Here are the 5 greatest performances from The People v. O.J. Simpson.
I know. Of all the real-world characters I was interested in meeting at the start of this series, Robert Kardashian was probably at the bottom of that list. And in the opening episodes, Schwimmer’s Kardashian often proved to be the least fascinating person in the room. But something shifted towards the end of the series. The question of Simpson’s innocence or guilt isn’t really a question on The People v. O.J. Simpson, so instead of focusing on Cuba Gooding Jr.’s character, it’s critical that the series leans on Schwimmer’s turmoil as a friend to both the accused and Nicole Brown Simpson. It’s true that the scenes featuring the Kardashian kids and Selma Blair as Kris Jenner couldn’t help but play like, well, dramatized versions of reality TV. But Schwimmer’s meltdown in episode eight, “A Jury in Jail,” in front of his ex-wife was a compelling moment nonetheless. His position was so much more complicated than most of the other characters on the show, who were either working for Simpson or against him, and had seemingly no qualms about it, either way. The presence of Robert Kardashian served as a purposeful reminder that this murder and this case, in spite of the optics and the politics, was always, deeply personal and affected more lives and families than most of us will ever know.
I’ll admit to being partial to any character played by the great Nathan Lane. If he’d only been given three lines in this series, there’s a good chance he would have landed a spot on this list. Lane received a great deal of attention for the conclusion of episode six’s “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” where Bailey cross-examined Steven Pasquale’s Mark Fuhrman and said the word “nigger” more times than people were comfortable with (I’m assuming those people believe that racists and well-meaning whites who totally aren’t racist but sometimes use the word use “The N-Word” in real life, but that’s a rant for another day). Lane always stood out as a sort of comic relief on the show, especially when pitted against John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro. But when he really got his chance to shine, he reminded everyone that he was no less a heavyweight in the courtroom than Vance’s Cochran—and this occurred in episode nine, “Manna From Heaven.” Bailey and Cochran head down to the dirty, dirty South—not the good dirty South of Ludacris and the Ying Yang twins, but the bad dirty south of Jesse Helms—to get their hands on the aforementioned manna (tapes of Mark Fuhrman being his lovely, racist, sexist self). They were forced to request the manna from a judge who made it clear to Cochran that he didn’t take kindly to his kind, showboating in the courtroom. It’s a powerful moment, not without its own comedy, and Bailey must save the day. He does all but raise the Confederate flag, and sing “I wish I was in Dixie” to appeal to the good ol’ boy in the robes, who will go on to release the tapes. Not only does this scene remind us of the crucial role Bailey plays in the narrative (and the ultimate win for the defense), but it solidifies Lane as one of the most captivating actors of the series.
May Sterling K. Brown go on to star in many, many more things from here on out. Before this series many of us were familiar with neither Brown nor Chris Darden, which is unfortunate. For those of us too young to recall his exact position on the case, in the early episodes, it was not entirely clear that Darden would go on to play such an integral part in the unfolding of this story. He was this fantastic surprise that People Vs. OJ sprung on us, somewhere around episode five’s “The Race Card.” Brown presented Darden as this perfect antithesis to Courtney B. Vance’s Johnnie Cochran, both inside and outside of the courtroom. But in many ways he was also able to match Vance’s passion in the courtroom, which was not an easy task. It’s his voice that speaks out so boldly against Cochran’s win in the end, as he declares that the lawyer/would-be-activist hasn’t done anything to advance the state of blacks in America, save for the black men (or the one black man) in Brentwood, California. Outside of the courtroom, as a friend to Marcia Clark—and maybe, definitely, please let it be, more than a friend—Brown walked a delicate line. He had to possess strength enough to be convincing as her equal, while also presenting Darden as a man who was both smitten with his co-worker and incredibly supportive of her during a difficult time (not just the case and the divorce, but that “makeover”—lest we forget he was the only one who told her the perm looked good, bless his heart). If I had to pick his shining moments of the series, I’d point viewers back to his breakdown in the finale, at the heart-wrenching press conference following Simpson’s acquittal, the incredibly moving closing scene of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” and the time when he called that radio show to vote on the ridiculous Marcia Clark: Bitch or Babe? survey. The words “I vote ‘babe,’” never sounded so feminist, and so good.
This was a difficult call. If this list took into consideration the number of times I shook my head, impressed, but in utter disbelief at the madness before me, Vance would have been number one. If this list took into consideration the number of times I said, to no one in particular, “This dude is wilin’,” Vance would have topped the list (on a list consisting of only Vance). Cochran was like the Kanye West of this series—nobody loved Cochran as much as Cochran loved himself, and his genius was both admirable and terrifying. Courtney B. Vance has always been a formidable actor, and he’s often played characters who know how to command a room. But Vance as Johnnie Cochran was a different beast. This was a man who could put on a show as well as any of his celebrity clients, but who cared deeply about the state of black men and women in America. In The People Vs. OJ Simpson he takes on a Shaft-like quality—he’s a complicated man, but no one understands him but his woman (Dale Cochran, presented by another great talent, Keesha Sharp). The series is also careful to show him as a man who can, like any human, be shaken to his core, especially when his family’s welfare is at stake. There’s the scene where he loses it after getting pulled over for DWB with his daughters in the car, and the struggle he faces as a man with an incredibly flawed past that comes back to haunt his wife, more so than it does him. As you watch him strategically destroy Marcia Clark and her case, you want to despise him—but he’s such a bad mutha-shut-yo-mouth, you can’t help but celebrate him in the season finale, when he gets the President of the United States (then Bill Clinton) to get on TV and talk about the deplorable state of race relations in the country; all because of his work. If Vance gets his first Emmy nomination and/or win this year, it’ll be long overdue, but well-deserved for his work resurrecting the late, legendary Cochran.
Also, umma let you finish, but the moment in episode five when Vance muttered, “Nigga please, ” to Brown’s Chris Darden, in the courtroom was one of the greatest TV moments of all time.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. One of the highlights of finishing the series was going back and reading the interviews Vulture conducted with the real Marcia Clark, who watched the series, and seemed to enjoy the presentation of this story as much as the rest of us. It’s not technically supposed to matter whether or not the person being portrayed approves of the role, but I couldn’t help but rejoice at her singing Paulson’s praises.
Paulson’s Marcia Clark couldn’t have come at a better time in TV. She reminds me of so many of the women who topped our list of best women characters of 2015 this incredible badass in her office (even when she’s wrong, even when she’s losing), and the series was careful not to completely strip her of all that when she got home. She was still badass, preparing breakfast for her kids, or smoking outside, in spite of her son’s disapproval. And that which you’d normally call her “softer” side also shone through in the courtroom. Marcia Clark was yet another constant reminder that everything about this case was personal. It was personal to every black woman and man on the jury, it was personal to those people protesting in the streets, it was personal to Lance Ito, to Johnnie Cochran and of course, to the parents of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. With Paulson’s brilliant performance, Marcia Clark became the lens through which all of these personal, political, social and career-related problems could be viewed. You felt for her, deeply, trying to make it home on time; just as deeply as you did when the photos leaked; just as deeply as you did when homeboy messed up her hair. And, because Paulson made her so authentic, you probably let out a screech when she showed up in episode seven, hair fleeked out to the max. And you let out a similar screech when she won full custody in episode nine, because damn that was a devastating episode and it had to be Marcia Clark who finally got the win. It’s possible that this show would have been fine with another actor taking on such a compelling role, with such an incredible script; but it’s a testament to Paulson’s work that, for the life of me, I can’t imagine who else could have done it.
This goes out to every member of the jury in “A Jury in Jail,” who participated in the Martin vs. Seinfeld debate. Iconic.
Shannon M. Houston is a Staff Writer and the TV Editor for Paste. This New York-based freelancer probably has more babies than you, but that’s okay; you can still be friends. She welcomes almost all follows on Twitter.