American Tragedy

  Most stories based in real life events often revel in finding the inner tragedy or comedy of real life and exposing it. They convert a real life event’s actors […]

 

Most stories based in real life events often revel in finding the inner tragedy or comedy of real life and exposing it. They convert a real life event’s actors into characters, with clear goals, convictions and personalities. Sometimes those are not very true to the people they’re reflecting. But often, they are true to the story and the lives they are reflecting. That’s the genius of American Crime Story; a show that is often willing to speculate on the personal lives of people whose lives were very well documented, but doesn’t use that speculation to demean or insult those people. Instead it tries to empathize and understand them.

At first, ACS sounded like a bad idea. An extension of many of Ryan Murphy’s obsession with glamour and flamboyance and, often, lack of meaning. The fact that it was sold as a companion piece to American Horror Story (decidedly one of my least favorite shows) probably didn’t help. It’s killer cast also sounded akin to American Horror Story’s obsession with taking well known actors and then have them go off in front of the cameras, like loose canons.

But over its remarkable first episode and its tremendous first season, Crime Story won me over because it showed the one thing that Ryan Murphy never understands: restraint. Not to say that Crime Story is delicate, by any means. But compared with the raucous Nip/Tuck and the scandalous Scream Queens, ACS doesn’t exactly indulge in excesses like Murphy’s oeuvre usually does. Which is definitely helped by the fact that it’s not a show written by him. Instead, when ACS goes for the fences, it’s entirely because it’s looking for deeper truths rather than to razzle dazzle the audience.

As American Crime Story progressed, its goal became clear: to humanize and ground some of the most polarizing and cartoonized figures in recent pop cultural history by showing that the reason they were so thoroughly parodied and their image became larger than life was because they found themselves in the path of an avalanche the likes of which very few people can really come out of unscathed, let alone alive.

American Crime Story 1

 

At the core of the show, there’s a rather new understanding of the Trial of the Century, not only as a drama that encompassed America’s fears and weaknesses as a society, but one that became an abyss that swallowed and destroyed people’s lives. ACS does superb work in taking the lives and work of Marcia Clark, Christopher Darden and Johnnie Cochran and giving them the one thing they never received during their time in the public’s eye: nuance.

Courtney B. Vance, in particular, creates one of the most sympathetic antagonists in recent memory. His Cochran is a flamboyant and dramatic performer, who doesn’t take to the court so much as to the stage. But underneath that confidence, there’s a man who has been hurt by America and will stop at nothing until people understand that the racism he has faced his whole life is truly seen. At times, it’s not hard to root for him. But like most of the characters in our favorite tragedies, we know he’s destined to fail and we know whatever victories he thinks he’s earned in getting that jury to acquit Orenthal James Simpson are pyrrhic.

There’s a wounded raging heart at the core of the show that keeps beating on, reminding you that justice is never going to show up in the story. That the Goldmans and the Browns will end up losing their children and that the man who most likely did it is going to walk away. That Marcia Clark is never going to set the precedent she wants, against male abusers. That Cochran will never truly overcome racial inequality and that his achievements in this trial, regardless of his self-delusion, will not contribute to the Civil Right struggle. He will never honor his idols, like Thurgood Marshall.

There’s also a wicked sense of humor through it all, that sets the show apart from its peers. Prestige shows are often derided as dour, and some of that criticism is rightful. I personally believe that no sitcom was as funny as Mad Men or Breaking Bad during their air times, but I suspect that those are exceptions, rather than rules. For every Mad Men, there’s at least 3 Ray Donovans or House of Cards, shows so appallingly disconnected from any experience other than the “White Angry Male Overcomes All” dynamic they might as well have been concocted in a lab.

But the beauty of American Crime Story’s first season is that it’s not interested at all on the White Male Experience. Characters like F. Lee Bailey, Robert Shapiro and so on are present and their story gets told, but the dynamic of the show is not one where they’re prevalent. This is the Trial of OJ Simpson, where 5 non-white males (OJ, Kardashian, Cochran, Clark and Darden) all had a substantial opinion on the way the American system worked and were substantially involved in changing (or solidifying) perceptions of it all. And the show never lets go of that idea, that maybe the American justice system has always been wrong, and that the one time where it would recognize itself as wrong is the one time where its early instincts to see the defendant as guilty were correct.