In a show full of great acting and fascinatingly experimental casting choices—Courtney Vance’s slick, you’ve-got-to-respect-his-game portrayal of Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson’s redemptive take on Marcia Clark, Cuba Gooding Jr.’s emotive turn as O.J. himself, John Travolta’s strange transformation into Robert Shapiro—one American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson performance stands out: David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian. When the news first broke that Schwimmer would be playing O.J.’s close friend and lawyer, the reaction was skeptical, to say the least. Entertainment outlets reported that “Ross from Friends” would be playing “Kim Kardashian’s father.” But as the season has progressed, his performance has proven transfixing—and not just because of the absurdity of seeing Ross Geller in the role. Instead of trying to go completely against type, Schwimmer has channeled his Ross-iness and become the series’ unlikely heart.
Friends was such a juggernaut in its time that it’s not surprising that its six stars haven’t—save for Jennifer Aniston’s semifictional tabloid persona—managed to find stardom that transcends their TV roles. Schwimmer’s casting plays on this in a canny way: What is Robert Kardashian if not a goofily loyal friend, just like Ross was to Chandler, Joey, and the rest of the gang? Seeing him as a supportive member of an entourage makes a kind of cosmic sense. Compared to acting roles—take Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler—that seem to incorporate the actor’s real-life persona into the casting, this show incorporates Schwimmer’s metapersona, the air of hangdog earnestness that has shadowed him ever since Friends. There’s the added wink of the miniseries taking place in the mid-’90s, years the audience well knows Schwimmer spent hanging out at Central Perk, not running around Brentwood.
Schwimmer has said that he didn’t set out to mimic the real Kardashian, who—judging by videos—had a more serious, less aw-shucks demeanor. He did, however, speak to Kardashian’s ex-wife Kris and develop an impression of Kardashian as loyal, private, a man of strong faith. Though some critics theorized otherwise, the show does not officially take a position on whether O.J. Simpson was guilty or innocent. And some reviews have maintained that Schwimmer’s Kardashian seems circumspect: “He knows O.J. probably did it, but he’s built his life on the lie of his best friend’s unwavering goodness,” Decider wrote. But Schwimmer hasn’t yet played Kardashian as outwardly conflicted at all (though a crisis of faith is apparently looming): He seems to believe and trust in O.J. completely and guilelessly. There’s only the faintest strain of doubt to be gleaned from all those anxious yelps of “Juice.” Though all of O.J.’s antics, Kardashian neither seems annoyed at his friend nor quite like a worshipful hanger-on; he always seems to open-heartedly want to help. Watching his performance, you both believe that he believed O.J. and wonder whether that could possibly be the case. Only a grown man with an utter lack of guile could repeatedly, with creatively varied intonations, speak a ridiculous name like “Juice” with a straight face.
Last week’s episode, the fifth, was a showcase for Vance’s Cochran, and this week’s episode centers on Marcia Clark. Schwimmer’s role has thus far been less central, more sidelines. You might say that such is the cruel nature of this star-studded miniseries: It casts Connie Britton as Faye Resnick only to dispense with her after four episodes, and after a few good scenes in early episodes—Kardashian pleading with O.J. not to kill himself in his house, Kardashian lecturing his children on the emptiness of fame—we have lately had to settle for Schwimmer’s Kardashian looking sympathetic in the background in courtroom scenes.
Of course, it’s possible that we’ll get a Kardashian-centric episode eventually. But Schwimmer’s role on the show is arguably even better for how deceptively lightweight it seems. Cochran’s the civil rights lawyer who ends up defending a probably-guilty man in the service of making a larger point about race; Clark’s a district attorney so focused on her desire to bring Simpson to justice that she seems not to recognize the larger narrative of the case. These are interesting, conflicted figures wrestling inwardly with weighty moral issues. Whereas Kardashian, as portrayed so far, seems like a comparatively simple figure, a well-meaning goofus who’s been duped by his own loyalty. And yet even in his brief moments in the spotlight, he projects a surprising pathos. Another paradox of this show: How can a character who seems so invested in the innocence of someone who is probably a murderer seem so likeable all the same?
Schwimmer’s performance isn’t scene-stealing. He does a lot of raising his eyebrows, furrowing his forehead, and looking to others for their reactions. When Shapiro suggests he reactivate his law practice and join the defense team, Schwimmer’s Kardashian is on board: “When Kris and I broke up, the Juice was there for me every night. I’d do anything for this man.” These words could sound sycophantic, but Schwimmer sells them, and it seems like this doofy guy really does believe in his friend’s innocence. He never seems to be looking for camp or inviting the audience’s laughter, even as he thrashes in his car, upset over O.J.’s disappearance, or as he lectures his future-reality-TV star children about the perils of fame in one of the cheesiest speeches of the series thus far. It works because the lines aren’t said winkingly. During the famed Bronco chase, O.J. and Kardashian have several emotional conversations on their ancient cellphones. O.J. reminisces and tells Robert he loves him, and Robert responds, “You know I feel the same, Juice.” There’s no doubt that Kardashian means it—and Schwimmer does, too.