Why only FX could do justice to 'O.J. Simpson'

Many have tried to tell this sensational story, but the cable net finally gets it right

First impressions are not always correct, so shame on me for immediately assuming the scripted drama "The People v. O.J. Simpson" would be the pits.

After all, there has been no shortage of mediocre programming based on the sensational murder case. Past attempts have included Fox TV movie "The O.J. Simpson Story" in 1995, CBS miniseries "American Tragedy" in 2000, and last year’s documentary "The Secret Tapes of the O.J. Case: The Untold Story" on the A&E Networks. So I wondered why we needed yet another re-enactment of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

Then I realized this new show, "The People v. O.J. Simpson," is the first season of the "American Crime Story" anthology series from Ryan Murphy — and it is on FX. That makes a world of difference.

Three episodes, and I am now fully committed to this 10-part tale, which follows in great detail exactly what happens after the bodies of O.J.’s ex-wife and her friend Ronald Goldman are found. Its debut show on Feb. 2, plus two encore telecasts, scored a record 12 million viewers and 6.1 million adults 18-49, according to Live + 3 Day data from Nielsen. That’s a testament to not only the interest viewers still have in the famous case but to the quality they’ve come to expect from FX’s programming.

So, just how did FX become known for must-see original scripted programming? And why is this version of the story the best one we’ve seen to date?

The answer to the latter question, of course, is because of the cookie-cutter mentality of the broadcast networks. With more original hours of programming to fill, more episodes traditionally per show, and more interference from the censors, the end result is often the next "CSI," "Law & Order" or "Chicago"-themed drama. In other words: nothing unusual. Cable, in contrast, has fewer restrictions, and FX has taken full advantage of that.

When FX launched in 1994 as part of the Fox Entertainment Group, there was really nothing special about its initial potpourri of old off-network series, which included family sitcom "Nanny and the Professor" and campy "Batman." It also offered a series of locally C-level produced talk shows hosted by personalities like Tom Bergeron, Jeff Probst and Phil Keoghan (pre-"Dancing With the Stars," "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race"). Still searching for an identity in 1997, FX morphed into a more male-driven outlet, a sort of "FX: Fox Gone Cable," complete with coverage of NASCAR and Major League Baseball. But that, too, fell short, and the decision was made under the direction of then president and general manager Peter Liguori in 2002 to enter the world of regularly scheduled scripted programming.    

At the time, there were roughly 30 scripted series on basic and premium cable, and the consensus by the critics was that quality scripted fare could only be found on an outlet like HBO. But that did not stop FX, which like AMC and Showtime, focused on making its mark with quality original scripted shows.

First up was crime solver "The Shield" with Michael Chiklis, who after four seasons as disheveled but likeable Tony Scali on the generic ABC crime drama "The Commish," transformed into the buff and bald corrupted cop leader Vic Mackey.  Unlike the vanilla crime dramas on the broadcast networks, "The Shield" played by its own rules. Chiklis as Vic was not your traditional good-guy crime solver. He was flawed, intense and conflicted, a true anti-hero. And the arrival of Glenn Close in season five signaled that basic cable could attract a five-time Oscar nominee.

Plastic surgery-themed drama "Nip/Tuck" followed "The Shield" one season later, which offered a setting we’d never seen before, and soon FX became the go-to venue for actors and storytellers in search of meaningful show opportunities. When NBC hired Liguori's head of programming Kevin Reilly in 2003, John Landgraf took over the reigns and further solidified FX’s reputation for overall excellence, with dramas "Damages," "Justified," "Rescue Me" and "Sons of Anarchy." And for the first time, the network became known for its comedies, with hits such as "Louie" (with comedian Louis C.K.) and "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia." At present, FX is enjoying critical acclaim with the dramas "American Horror Story"; "The Americans"; "Fargo"; and, now, "American Crime Story."

While there have also been a number of clunkers — most recently the drama "The Bastard Executioner" — FX’s reputation for creative storytelling is only getting stronger with its growing inventory of hits. "The People v. O.J. Simpson" is the latest entry in its artillery and magnifies the primary rule of success for any network: the caliber of the programming.

So far, the inaugural season of anthology "American Crime Story" is an absolute addiction. Created by Ryan Murphy ("American Horror Story," "Glee") and based on the bestselling 1996 book "The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson" by Jeffrey Toobin, the ensemble cast includes Sarah Paulson as prosecutor Marcia Clark, David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson (who, unfortunately, bares little to no resemblance to O.J.).

"This is a tremendously entertaining program that addresses many critical and societal issues that are at the forefront of the current national dialogue," promised FX’s John Landgraf at the recent Television Critics Association Press Tour.  "Included is race, domestic violence, gender discrimination, the 24/7 news cycle, celebrity, class, and our sometimes broken criminal justice system."

While I often roll my eyes when I hear a network executive gloat, Mr. Landgraf was not exaggerating. The show delivers on that promise. It immediately dives into the bloody discovery of the bodies of Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman. The story is intense, the camera movement is fierce, the acting is spot on and the absurdity of the Ford Bronco chase is adeptly re-created. Unnecessary, however, is the attention given to the Kardashian tots (pre-reality series fame, of course), including scenes where they screech in delight as their father speaks on television, and Mama Kris (Selma Blair) scolding Kourtney and Kim for running around during Brown’s funeral. "The People v. O.J. Simpson" stands on its own. There’s no need to sensationalize the connection to the Kardashians. Let’s leave that to E!  

Kardashians aside, I give FX two thumbs up for yet another creative — and ratings — success.  I can’t wait to see what is next.

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