On June 12, 1994, Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald L. Goldman were brutally murdered outside Ms. Simpson’s Los Angeles home. In the trial that followed, argues “The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” our current social conflicts and media culture were born.
The 10-episode series, starting Tuesday on FX, looks at that case from two decades ago and sees today in embryo. The power, and the competing claims, of identity politics. The marathon news stories packaged as entertainments. Above all, the idea that black and white Americans can look at precisely the same scene and see entirely different realities.
The show acquits itself well. Despite the audience’s knowledge that the former football star Orenthal James Simpson will be found not guilty (history is not a spoiler, sorry), the series is absorbing, infuriating and, yes, thoroughly entertaining.
And despite the program’s well-chewed-over subject matter — the Bronco! the glove! Kato Kaelin! — it is revelatory, though not about the murders. You probably have an opinion as to whether O. J. did it. “The People v. O. J. Simpson” is not interested in sharing its own, though the book it’s based on, “The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson,” by Jeffrey Toobin, couldn’t be more explicit: “Simpson murdered his ex-wife and her friend.” (The author was a consultant on the series.)
Instead, “The People,” which was developed by the screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski (“The People vs. Larry Flynt,” “Ed Wood”) and has Ryan Murphy as an executive producer, focuses on the legal process. Like the true-crime sensations “Serial” and “The Jinx,” it’s conscious of the ways justice is achieved, denied or bought. You’ve seen “Making a Murderer”? Get ready for “Unmaking a Murderer.”
“The People” opens with video of the 1991 police beating of an African-American motorist, Rodney King, which sets the racial context (and echoes in the Black Lives Matter movement), then jumps to the hours and days after the murders, as suspicion settles around Mr. Simpson (Cuba Gooding Jr.).
Mr. Gooding captures the unsettling enigma of Mr. Simpson, the running back, actor and Hertz pitchman, grown strange in the hothouse of celebrity, lashing out — in grief? guilt? — as the investigation closes in on him. Before the infamous freeway chase, he signs a suicide note, “Peace and Love, O. J.,” with a smiley face in the “O.”
The show really comes to life when we meet Johnnie Cochran (a magnetic Courtney B. Vance), a legal maestro who can hear the note of race in the investigation while everyone else is still deaf to it. Mr. Simpson may protest to his defense team that “I’m not black, I’m O. J.!” But when the prosecutor Christopher Darden (Sterling K. Brown) argues to an African-American neighbor that Mr. Simpson effectively “became white” as a celebrity, his neighbor answers: “Well, he got the cops chasing him. He’s black now.”
But he’s still famous, and rich enough to assemble his fractious dream team of defenders, including Mr. Cochran, Robert Shapiro (imagined by John Travolta as a vain wax doll), F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane) and Alan Dershowitz (Evan Handler), aided by Mr. Simpson’s pal Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer).
Against this well-financed club, its meetings catered with lox and whitefish from Nate’n Al of Beverly Hills, is the overtaxed yet overconfident prosecutor Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson), certain that once a jury sees the evidence and O. J.’s history of domestic violence, neither race nor celebrity will matter. She’s driven, idealistic, blinded, doomed.
Docufiction may seem an odd fit for Mr. Murphy, known for carving the exquisite gargoyles of “American Horror Story” and “Scream Queens.” But Mr. Murphy, a former journalist, has a reporter’s impulse to document the way we live and a moralist’s zeal about society’s obsession with fame and appearance. (His “Nip/Tuck” used plastic surgery to examine self-loathing; “Glee” began with Rachel Berry’s declaration that “being anonymous is worse than being poor.”)
“The People” shifts tones nimbly. When Mr. Cochran stages Mr. Simpson’s house for a walk-through by the largely black jury — removing pictures of white people and furnishing it with Afro-centric décor and art from “the Cochran collection” — the makeover scene slyly slippity-slides to Coolio’s “Fantastic Voyage.” But the series also slaps us with reality: grisly stills from the murder scene; a moment in which Mr. Cochran is slammed to the hood of his car during a police stop, in front of his children.
Like an amateur sleuth arguing that a guilty man was framed, this series believes that two seemingly opposed ideas can be true: a charge of police racism, say, can be both legitimate and cynically deployed. Its triumph is to take a case that divided the nation into teams and treat everyone, vulture or victim, with curiosity and empathy.
Ms. Clark, for instance, has been lambasted for her failings — Tina Fey played her as a bumbler in “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” Ms. Paulson makes her a flawed but tragic heroine: a divorced mom, strapped for child care, battling a legal hydra made of money while the tabloids pick at her hairstyle and kibitzers tell her to smile more. Among other things, the series is a story of a feminist narrative — domestic abuse, stereotypes of women — losing to a racial one. (If the trial happened today, there would be a smoking ash heap where Twitter and Facebook used to be.)
The casting is inspired, from Connie Britton as Faye Resnick (Ms. Simpson’s friend turned instant tell-all author) to Larry King as himself. Robert Morse is delectable as the journalist-gadfly Dominick Dunne, who dismisses the notion that the police framed Mr. Simpson. “O. J. hosted pool parties for them,” he scoffs, dragging out “pooool” into a little catty aria.
The oddest choice is how the series strains to include Mr. Kardashian’s young children — notably “Kimmy” — who now live on reality-TV Olympus. Having used his new fame to jump a line and score a table at brunch, he tells his kids: “We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous.”
The line is on the nose enough to leave a mark, but it feels like more than mere name-dropping. The trial is long over, “The People v. O. J. Simpson” tells us, but the world is still dining out on this sad story.