Airtime: Tuesdays at 10PM on FX
Episode: Season 1, Episode 5 (S01E05)
Tweetable Takeaway: Our reviewer @paulgulyas asks, “Who are you rooting for?” in this week’s @ACSFX
Who are you rooting for? Well, who did you root for back when the trial was actually happening? Has that changed? These are questions I have to ask while taking in the enormity of AMERICAN CRIME STORY. What’s keeping me on the edge of my seat despite knowing how it all concludes is how surprising it is when I am suddenly realizing I’m sympathizing with a character I didn’t think I would. Last week it was Travolta’s Rob Shapiro. Equally surprising are my shifting feelings on characters I previously liked. This week that is Johnny Cochran, and his rise to villainy is quite the spectacle.
The episode begins with Johnny taking his two little girls to dinner, when he is pulled over by a cop. We soon realize that this wasn’t just a random encounter but systemic discrimination on the LAPD’s part; at best the cop pulled him over for being a black man driving a nice car in an upscale neighborhood, at worst the cop pulled him over because he knew it was Johnny Cochran and he and his chronies want to intimidate him for fueling racial tension in the city. Scary stuff, especially for children. You feel bad for Johnny here. You have to. But that quickly goes out the window as the episode goes on and a new character to sympathize with emerges: Christopher Darden.
Christopher Darden is a black man who has surely felt discriminated against at points in his life, much like Johnny has. But what’s interesting here is through the machinations of the court system (the defense team playing the race card and the prosecution having to answer to that) doorways open for Darden precisely BECAUSE he is black. And in fact Johnny calls the prosecution out on this in a press conference, deeply wounding Darden who somehow hadn’t realized exactly why he was called to join the team in the first place. This made until now morally-unfaltering Marcia Clark look just as sneaky and manipulative as the defense. So again our protagonist shifts.
Speaking of sneaky and manipulative, there’s quite an eye opening scene where Cochran leads the redecoration of OJ’s house before the jury comes to take a look to make him seem more into black culture. How is this allowed by the court?
But I digress. The real tension of this episode does not come between white vs. black but from Cochran and Darden themselves. In a brilliant scene, Darden, in anticipation of the defenses characterization as officer Mark Fuhrman as a racist, makes an impassioned plea to Judge Ito to disallow the n-word from being spoken in the courtroom. He argues it’s too charged, that just its utterance can subconsciously shift the sentiments of the black people in the jury. Cochran immediately objects, dramatically pointing out that he has more faith in people of color to not let emotions sway their logic, and it’s insulting to believe otherwise. Judge Ito ultimately sides with Cochran and Cochran drops one hell of a gut-punching line on Darden before he sits down: “Nigger, please.”
This, coupled with his mastermind redecorating, and finally with swatting away Darden’s well-intended olive branch (“I’m not trying to be respectful. I’m trying to win,” Cochran tells him menacingly) makes Cochran into the villain of the series thus far. Two episodes ago I would have told you that was Shapiro. At the start of the series, I probably would have said O. J. himself. Who will viewers despise next? And who will we champion? It’s the best element of the show, and very clever.
A couple sidenotes. Robert Morse (who you’ll remember as Bert Cooper on Mad Men) had a great little cameo as Vanity Fair reporter Dominick Dunne. Apparently Dunne’s own daughter was murdered, and the murderer got off with a “slap on the wrist;” this is why Ito places him front and center along with the Goldman’s: he believes Dunne will be more sympathetic to their pain. But in the next scene we see him in he’s the life of the dinner party gossiping up about the trial. I hope to see more of this character sprinkled in the remainder of the series.
All in all, this episode was just as strong as the previous, if not stronger, and we are officially halfway through. Let’s hope that The People v. O. J. can sustain this incredible momentum. If they keep putting Courtney B. Vance as Cochran front and center, I don’t see how it can’t.
Paul co-created and writes for SHOWoff, a game that lets players predict what happens next on their favorite TV shows, earn points for what they get right, and see where they stack up against friends and the world (free in the iOS App store). Check out the SHOWoff app at playSHOWoff.com
Paul Gulyas | Contributor