OnlyOnAOL: The star of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' explains why the series nails it

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BY DONNA FREYDKIN

This reporter was a newbie production assistant in the CNN newsroom when the verdict was read, to wide-eyed silence. Not guilty.

It was a trial that captivated and obsessed a nation, that dominated the news cycle, and that introduced us to the reality juggernaut that became the Kardashians.

We're talking about legendary football star O.J. Simpson, who was accused of murdering his wife and her friend. Both were found stabbed on her property. And the legal twists and turns of the case are the subject of "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." The premiere set a ratings record for FX. And for very good reason.

The show is a perfect blend of credibility, authenticity, and gossipy, lurid entertainment. Based on the nonfiction book by Jeffrey Toobin, "The Run of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson," the series stars David Schwimmer, Nathan Lane, John Travolta and Courtney B. Vance as the key members of Simpson's legal dream team. Simpson, for those who somehow lived inside a yurt for the last two decades, was charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman. After a televised trial that captivated the country, he was found not guilty in October 1995.

The heart and soul of the series, executive produced by Ryan Murphy, belongs Vance, who captures Cochran's flamboyance, his folksiness, his legal savvy, and his passionate embrace of the fight for equal rights. In one particularly searing scene, Cochran gets pulled over – for no reason – and handcuffed, while his two little daughters look on in horror from the backseat, then the front seat. In another, Cochran, with his unfailing ability to read a room, redecorates Simpson's house, removing the photos of Simpson with Caucasian friends and women. Instead, where a photo of Paula Barbieri once sat, goes a picture of Simpson's mother.

The second episode airs at 10 p.m. on Tuesday.

Vance's opinion on Simpson's guilt or innocence isn't relevant, he says. "It doesn't matter. The tragedy is not O.J. The real tragedy is Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. That's what got lost. There was so much at stake. The trial became about so many other things," he says.

Indeed, the murders took a backseat to the courtroom shenanigans and infighting. Prosecutor Marcia Clark (a staggeringly gifted and nuanced Sarah Paulson) grappled with an ugly custody fight and mundane childcare issues while taking on the case of her career. Cochran, meanwhile, saw beyond the murders to the bigger picture: a referendum on race and how African-Americans were treated by police.

"The case became a circus. Johnnie Cochran knew all he had to do create the atmosphere so that everybody is looking at so many other things than the guilt and innocence. Nobody knew what DNA was at that point," says Vance. "Johnnie Cochran started out with these cases where he was out there defending the defenseless, who had no place to go. He knew the landscape. The prosecution didn't understand what they were up against. Everybody had an agenda in this trial."

To prep for the role, Vance read. And read some more. "I made the decision – I didn't want to get overwhelmed. My plan of attack was not to watch the trial. I didn't talk to anyone. I wanted to capture the spirit of him. I put that wig on and that transformation happened physically," says Vance.

As for his wife Angela Bassett, who was also working with Ryan Murphy on his other series, "American Horror Story," she mostly stuck to her own job.

"She had her own ensembles to try to figure out and keep straight. She didn't see me. She wasn't on set much. She's in awe now. Just like I am. It's an amazing transformation for all of us. I would go on set and look at people and go, 'Whoah,'" he says. "We knew when we finished that all things being equal, we did something extraordinary. The fashion, the depth of feeling, the outrage, it's all in there."

Take a look at the key players in the trial below.

18 PHOTOS
Key Players in the OJ Simpson Trial
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OnlyOnAOL: The star of 'The People v. O.J. Simpson' explains why the series nails it
Defense attorney Robert Shapiro (L) sits next to O.J. Simpson during a preliminary hearing following the murders of Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman July 7, 1994 in Los Angeles. (Photo by Lee Celano/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 27: Prosecutor Marcia Clark complains to the judge 27 February about a second statement by Rosa Lopez, a key defense witness, that was not released by the defense. Lopez, a housekeeper to a neighbor of O.J. Simpson's, claims to have seen a white Ford Bronco outside his home at around the time the prosecution claim the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman took place. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 19: O.J. Simpson (R) whispers to Defense attorney F. Lee Bailey (L) during testimony of FBI special agent William Bodziak 19 June during the O.J. Simpson murder trial in Los Angeles. Bodziak compared one of O.J. Simpson's tennis shoes to a model of the Italian-made Bruno Magli shoes, which left imprints at the murder scene of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 16: O.J. Simpson defense attorney Alan Dershowitz (standing) gestures during a motion to Judge Lance Ito 16 June in which he said that the standard of juror dismissals must be changed. The defense has accused the prosecution of juror targeting and hiding witnesses. Seated are (L-R) prosecutor Marcia Clark and Scott Gordon. AFP PHOTO (Photo credit should read POO/AFP/Getty Images)
Deputy District Attorney Christopher Darden, one of the prosecutors in the OJ Simpson murder trial is shown during a court hearing December 9
OJ Simpson sits in court October 14 with his attorney Robert Shapiro during a hearing in Simpson's murder trial
Defense attorneys Robert Shapiro (L) and Johnnie Cochran, Jr., arrive at the Criminal Courts Building in Los Angeles September 26 for the first day of jury selection in the OJ Simpson murder trial. A protestor's painting on spousal abuse is in the background
Superior Court Judge Lance Ito makes a point during a pre-trial hearing on suppression of evidence in the OJ Simpson murder case September 21 in Los Angeles
Josephine Guarin, housekeeper at OJ Simpson's estate in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, testifies during a pre-trial hearing on evidence suppression in the OJ Simpson murder case September 22
Prosecution witness Candace Garvey, a friend of Nicole-Brown Simpson, testifes about OJ Simpson's appearance at his daughter's dance recital June 12, 1994, during afternoon court session in OJ Simpson's murder trial
Prosecutor Marcia Clark wears rubber gloves as she places a left-hand glove found at the feet of murder victim Ronald Goldman into a plastic bag during OJ Simpson's murder trial, February 17
Denise Brown (L), sister of Nicole-Brown Simpson, cries as she testifies February 6 about Nicole-Simpson's relationship with O.J. Simpson, during morning court session in Simpson's murder trial. Brown wears "Angel" earrings and pins in memory of her sister
FILE PHOTO 16MAR95 - Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman is shown on the witness stand March 16, 1995 during O.J. Simpson's murder trial in Los Angeles. A bloody fingerprint was found at the scene of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman but police bungling destroyed it, Fuhrman says in a new book published on February 17. SIMPSON FINGERPRINT
Prosecutor Brian Kelberg points out a wound near Ronald Goldman's ear on an autopsy chart during testimony June 9 in the OJ Simpson murder trial. The Los Angeles County coroner said that Goldman received two small stabs to the neck in addition to fatal slashes, suggesting that he was taunted by his attacker before being killed
Kim Goldman, sister of murder victim Ron Goldman, reacts to the showing of a photograph of her brother's bloody shirt during the OJ Simpson double murder trial in Los Angeles June 26. The prosecution presented the final phase of its case, trace and hair evidence. **POOR QUALITY DOCUMENT
Arnelle Simpson, daughter of murder defendant OJ Simpson, testifies July 10 on her father's behalf in his double murder trial in Los Angeles. Arnelle Simpson is the first witness in the defense's case
Defense witness Robert Heidstra points during his testimony July 12 at O.J. Simpson's murder trial to the area near where he walked his dog on the night [Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman] were murdered June 12,1994. The chart is a map of the area around Bundy Drive, site of the murders
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