[For The People v. OJ Simpson “From the Ashes of Tragedy” or any other recaps on Fetchland, assume the presence of possible spoilers.]
From the Ashes of Tragedy.In the episode “From the Ashes of Tragedy” the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman lead the LAPD to the home of OJ Simpson.
Often cited as the most publicized trial in American History and the “trial of the century”, the double murder trial for the killing of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman spanned eight months in 1995. The trial ended with OJ’s acquittal and spotlighted a nationwide polarity in black and white opinions as to Simpson’s innocence or guilt. Based on the book The Run of His Life: The People v. OJ Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin this show seeks to explore the many sides of an emotionally powerful and intrinsically fascinating drama many Americans feel they witnessed firsthand. We watched the trial on TV and the daily media frenzy that followed each day but weren’t privy to many of the events portrayed in this show. It’s the behind the scenes good stuff that brings out the intrigue and keeps us riveted, especially characters like John Travolta’s Robert Shapiro, a hilarious and real character that he wears like a glove.
As a refresher and reference here’s the cast of characters:
Cuba Gooding, Jr. as OJ Simpson – Former football Hall-of-Famer and actor accused of killing his ex wife, Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend, Ronald Goldman.
Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark – Prosecuting attorney on OJ Simpson trial – mother of two going through a divorce during the trial
John Travolta as Robert Shapiro – One of Simpson’s lead defense attorneys – a celebrity lawyer who has become a celebrity in his own right
David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian – Close friend of OJ Simpson who took up practicing law again just to support Simpson throughout the trial
Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran – One of the lead lawyers on OJ’s defense
Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey – Famous criminal defense attorney on many high profile cases, including the OJ Simpson trial
Billy Magnussen as Kato Kaelin – Houseguest of OJ at time of murders and witness at trial
Connie Britton as Faye Resnick – Friend of Nicole Brown Simpson and witness at trial
Steven Pasquale as Mark Fuhrman – Detective on the murder case who played a crucial role in amplifying the issue of race in the Simpson case.
Sterling K. Brown as Christopher Darden – Lawyer for the prosecution – brought onto prosecution team when Clark’s co-prosecuter took ill – had OJ try on bloody glove
Kenneth Choi as Judge Lance Ito – Judge on OJ Simpson trial
Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Al Cowlings AKA “AC” – OJ’s friend who drove the white bronco
Evan Handler as Alan Dershowitz – well known lawyer on the Simpson defense
Rob Morrow as Barry Scheck – Lawyer on OJ’s team
Robert Morse as Dominick Dunne – Haughty society journalist reporting for Vanity Fair
The first episode “From the Ashes of Tragedy” opens with a compilation of news coverage videos from the LA riots after the Rodney King trial verdict. It’s a reminder that these events happened only two years before the Simpson trial in that very same city. Next we see OJ’s driver picking him up for the airport on the night of the murders. He’s late because he “overslept and had to take a shower,” Simpson explains to his driver. Then a man notices a barking dog and thus discovers first bloody footprints leading to a gate and right after the full on crime scene outside the front door of Nicole Brown Simpson’s condo.
Soon homicide detective Mark Furhman shows up at the condo crime scene and with fellow lead detective Phillip Van Atter it’s decided they need to notify OJ of his ex wife’s murder. Furhman says he knows where Simpson lives, having been there for a family dispute a few years earlier. Outside OJ’s house the detectives see Simpson’s white Ford Bronco and spy what looks like blood on the door near the handle and in the interior. OJ isn’t home but when they knock on the door of the guest house out back they find an out-of-it Kato Kaelin inside. He says he’s not “an official person” and “I just kind of live back here,” then recommends they talk to OJ’s daughter. So, the detectives then call to notify Simpson of his ex wife’s death. He doesn’t ask how she died and hangs up after saying he’ll be back in LA the next day. Next we see Kato in Simpson’s backyard directing Mark Furhman to where he heard a loud banging on his A/C unit and then Furhman finds a bloody glove right under the air conditioner and detective Van Atter declares it a crime scene.
He’s the link to the next scene when he calls Marcia Clark for advice. Van Atter tells her about the crime and the evidence they’ve found: drops of blood leading to Simpson’s house, what appears to be blood on the Ford Bronco, and two bloody gloves; one at the murder scene and one at Simpson’s that appear to match. Clark immediately says it sounds like they’ve found enough evidence to arrest Simpson. Van Atter says he’s really just trying to get a search warrant at this point.
Marcia then briefs the DA office on the known details of the case. They work out a timeline and note that OJ’s flight took off at 11:45 and the murders happened at some point between ten and eleven. Clark then describes Ron Goldman as a twenty five year old actor/waiter returning glasses to Nicole that her mother left at the restaurant where he worked. They look at the crime scene pictures and have to pause a moment when they see that Nicole’s head was nearly severed from her body. These were brutal murders. Bill, Marcia’s co-council, shares the info about Simpson’s abuse conviction for beating Nicole when they were married five years ago. She’d called 911 eight times over the years of their marriage and had a black eye and split lip on record. OJ also shattered her windshield with a baseball bat at one point. In the end Simpson got off easy with community service that he never did, Bill recounts. Then they listen to the interview with OJ talking about the night of the murders and he’s vague about timing when asked about the events; even answering what time it was with, “seven, eight, nine… I don’t know”. Marcia complains that the investigators aren’t doing their job because they don’t get any specific information from him. Bill tries to explain to her what a giant football star OJ was and that the detectives were intimidated by his celebrity but Clark dismisses all that and says. “It doesn’t matter. He got away with beating her but he won’t get away with killing her,” although a worthy goal it also refuses to acknowledge the power of OJ’s celebrity. This could perhaps have been the fatal flaw in their prosecution tactics. We see Clark doesn’t have it easy in her life outside the trial either. She smokes constantly and sweats stress deep into the seams of her cheap suits – one of the hardest jobs imaginable ahead of her and going through a volatile divorce as well.
Next we see Robert Kardashian (King Kodependent) and Howard (OJ’s initial lawyer) at Simpson’s house to support him. OJ’s car from the airport drives up and he’s already surrounded by police and paparazzi. The police take him in the backyard and start to handcuff him but Howard stops them and then OJ offers to cooperate with Van Atter against Howard’s advice. One of the paparazzi catches the interaction on tape and announces, “OJ is a suspect,” then broadcasts the picture of the momentary handcuffing so that it appears on the news soon after. Van Atter then gives the blood evidence to an examiner to test for DNA and the forensics guy says they can’t rush it because DNA is serious stuff.
Clark then interviews witnesses who interacted with OJ the night of the murders. A woman OJ nearly hit swerving his SUV at 10:45 who, because he screamed at her, knows she can be certain it was OJ Simpson. Then the driver who took Simpson to the airport places OJ at the house a bit later and this grants the prosecution a solid timeline for where OJ was that night. Their timeline gives him plenty of time to have done the murders. Meanwhile Shapiro and Kardashian sit by while a polygraph examiner tabulates Simpson’s responses to questions about the murder and Simpson fails the polygraph, doing the worst possible – a score of negative 24. This sets OJ off on a rage in which he blames Kardashian and Shapiro for not “being there for him” during the polygraph. What the hell’s he paying them for anyway? It’s unclear why Kardashian remains so loyal to OJ after outbursts like this, thus his fetchland nickname King Kodependent.
Then we’re introduced to the colorful Johnnie Cochran choosing an outfit from his massive closet. He goes to the DA’s office where he chides Christopher Darden for being on the wrong side of the law when it comes to justice for black people. The one thing they agree on, though, is the endless cycle of bullshit that is practicing the law in a system that claims to administer justice but instead perpetuates racism and unfairness. Cochran leaves the office saying that although Darden couldn’t get justice for his client he will advise them to sue the city for police brutality and wrongful death. “You see,” Cochran says, “sometimes money is the only way to get justice,” and thus we now we see the introduction of the themes of race and money with these two characters, Cochran and Darden. They’re so similar and yet, once both involved in the trial, worlds apart and in total opposition on these two, arguably most crucial, themes of the story.
Next we see OJ stressed to the max at his house surrounded by friends. He’s popping pills and raging while Robert Kardashian gives him advice including that he needs a better lawyer than Howard. At this mention we’re introduced to Rico Suave himself, Robert Shapiro at a fancy lunch getting a call from OJ Simpson. In their first meeting Shapiro name drops celebrity clients like Rainman with a box of toothpicks. Then Shapiro tells Kardashian he needs to get his license to practice law back in gear and join the team so he can support his best friend in the courtroom. After Kardashian agrees, Shapiro asks to speak with OJ privately for a moment. Then he promises to keep Simpson’s answer confidential before asking him if he did the murders. OJ doesn’t hesitate before saying no and adds, “I loved her”.
At the funeral Faye Resnick and Kris Jenner (Nicole’s closest friends) gossip about OJ’s rage and how Nicole was terrified of him. They both think he did it. Even the paparazzi seem suspicious when Simpson brings Shapiro to the funeral. Only a guilty man would need his lawyer at his dead wife’s funeral. But really, no matter what he did or how he conducted himself, Simpson couldn’t win in this situation. OJ goes to the coffin and kisses Nicole, to Shapiro’s chagrin. What should he have done? It appears only his celebrity lawyer has that playbook.
In the next scene Marcia gets the DNA report which matches Simpson’s blood to the crime scene and gloves. Immediately after Shapiro finagles on the phone with the police negotiating Simpson’s imminent arrest. He says he’ll bring OJ in at eleven. But then Simpson is unwilling to even consider going. Shapiro keeps insisting he needs time alone with OJ so he can say anything he needs to say because they’ll always be observed after this. Want me to clear this room? I can clear the room. The comedy of errors starts rolling then as Shapiro tries to hold off the cops with a variety of lame excuses while he has a string of different doctors examine OJ to provide series of back up plans for his defense. Kardashian then goes to reluctant Simpson to get him and OJ holds up a will he’s written longhand and threatens to shoot himself saying it’ll just be easier for everybody this way. Kardashian holds him off but it doesn’t seem like OJ means it. In fact it feels like nothing more than a histrionic diversion and that’s exactly what this threat is, as we’ll see in the climatic scene of the episode.
Meanwhile Marcia Clark snarks on the phone at Robert Shapiro and threatens that he’s harboring a fugitive. As Shapiro continues to struggle off to the side on the phone with her, Al Cowlings (AC, OJ’s friend and fellow footballer) shows up. Kardashian tells AC that Simpson’s got a gun and he should help him out, a vague statement that AC apparently misinterpreted to mean, “do whatever OJ says”. Next thing we know the police are at the door to bring Simpson downtown and we hear the song I Shall Be Released as they all realize that AC took off with OJ in the white bronco onto the Los Angeles highway. The episode ends with Marcia Clark shaking her head in her boss’s office. She says, “We’re all going to look like morons,” and in the end that turns out to be true for certain. But not quite yet, Marcia. Not quite yet.
There are several takeaways from this first episode and it’s interesting how they seem to balance each other, from OJ’s intense rages and narcissism to Kardashian’s gentle kindness, patience, and refusal to see that there’s even a slight possibility his best friend could be guilty of this crime. Another such opposite duo are Shapiro and Clark. She’s a tightly wound little bundle of nerves, smoking so much we can practically smell the nicotine on her while Shapiro is a master of cool. He’s so savvy he can give the worst possible news to a rage-aholic (the cops are coming to take you to prison) with ease and warmth. The man is a master communicator and funny to boot. It seems like every few minutes Shapiro asks OJ if he wants him to “clear the room in case there’s something you want to tell me in confidence”. This is a man accustomed to the role of confidant and dealing with people at their very worst. Another dichotomy is the parallel relationship between Cochran and Darden. Both are merely on the periphery of the case at the beginning but they’re lawyers who deal with racism and criminality every day on the job and agree at the onset of this story that getting justice regardless of race is a thankless task – a road to nowhere. But once working on the trial, these characters will create a fork in that road. This very impasse then becomes like a divining rod for racism in the justice system of this country. The OJ Simpson trial woke us up to how celebrity affects our culture, signified by OJ and his best friend, Robert Kardashian. It was also the first time the American public really watched our justice system on TV and with characters such as Marcia Clark and Robert Shapiro the trial grabbed our attention and didn’t let go. So, each of these three pairings represent the three big themes of the show and pull us in different directions, just like the OJ Simpson trial itself.