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25 February 2016

It’s hard to meditate on the details of The People v O J Simpson once you see John Travolta’s eyebrows

Even when the series is gripping, I keep being distracted by Travolta's weirdly unmoving face. Plus: The Night Manager.

By Rachel Cooke

The BBC has adapted John le Carré’s 1993 novel, The Night Manager (Sundays, 9pm), updating its plot so the action begins during the Arab spring, just as Hosni Mubarak is about to fall. It’s a slick production, more like a film than a TV series, which helps to alleviate some of its wilder improbabilities (do dodgy arms dealers really send out invoices itemising all the nerve gas they’ve sold?). I’ll certainly be sticking with it. But the casting is odd. Olivia Colman, who plays Angela Burr, a (pregnant) spymaster, and Hugh Laurie as Richard Roper, its arch-baddie, seem to be miscast – a clumsiness that looks all the more peculiar beside the absolute genius of having Tom Hiddleston play the central character, Jonathan Pine, an ex-soldier who makes his living as a night manager at swanky international hotels.

Hiddleston’s performance as a posh English bloke whose job it is to be unctuous to even posher English blokes (and some foreign ones, too) is pitch perfect. He looks right, he sounds right, and through every line there is threaded a certain unchallengeable insolence, dressed up so lavishly in politeness that it is never in any danger of putting him within a mile of losing his job, or even a tip. His servitude is energetic, knowing, witty – all of which Hiddleston conveys without the help of much dialogue. To say that Laurie, in particular, looks a bit hammy beside him doesn’t come close to expressing the difference in the quality of their performances.

Laurie is chasing that whole flamboyant Simon Mann-ish public-school mercenary vibe, all Gucci loafers and menacing carmine trousers. But somehow it’s too mannered, too loud. Not all of this is his fault; he’s got some terrible retro Bond-villain lines. But some of it is, because Hiddleston has to utter more than a few duds, too; he also has to conjure up his character’s unlikely attacks of conscience, which, like the waiters at his hotel, appear from nowhere.

While I enjoy a nice dollop of camp as much as anyone, I am unable to go along with my newspaper colleagues in heaping praise on The People v O J Simpson: American Crime Story (Mondays, 9pm). It’s fairly gripping, yes, but Dynasty used to be fairly gripping, once, if you were in the right mood (bored and sozzled on Bailey’s). This doesn’t mean it isn’t also bilge, and sometimes pernicious bilge at that. Has no one else noticed how its portrayal of Marcia Clark, the state’s chief prosecutor in the case (played by Sarah Paulson), chooses to emphasise the side of her – supposedly abrasive and overly confident – that was said to have lost her the sympathy of the jury? We get to see how harried she is at home, alone of all the lawyers, the implication being that she (and women generally) cannot hope to concentrate on anything important.

I gather the writers do finally come over all feminist about Clark in a future episode, sympathising with the way her perm and short skirts were scrutinised by the press. They simply could have made her nicer, smarter and more competent from the start. The fault, it seems, lay in the way she was perceived, rather than the way she was.

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The series presents itself as a meditation on celebrity, making much of how, say, Simpson liked to refer to himself in the third person. But it’s hard to meditate on anything when you are distracted by the astonishing weirdness of John Travolta’s bloated, unmoving face (he plays OJ’s lawyer Robert Shapiro). Those eyebrows! It’s as if a couple of doormats from the Beverly Hills Hotel had blown up and stuck to his face.

Then there is David Schwimmer, who plays Robert Kardashian, father of (yes) that lot. One gathers Kardashian was a touch dumb as far as his famous pal was concerned, but Schwimmer’s performance goes way beyond stupid. I’ve seen vanity units act better than this. His face has only one expression: confused. Sometimes he is slightly confused. Sometimes he is middlingly confused. And sometimes he is very confused. “Juice, Juice!” he cries, again and again. He sounds more like a toddler who wants his Tommee Tippee cup than a man who believes that his best friend has been wrongly accused of a brutal double murder. 

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This article appears in the 24 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Boris Backlash