In a show largely uninterested in picking a side, it has been Robert Kardashian, the Armenian-American lawyer played by David Schwimmer, who has emerged as the heart of The People v. O.J. Simpson. This was by design, after all. “He was the one guy in this case that didn’t have any other weird motive involved. He had no agenda,” creators Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski told us on the Vulture TV Podcast. “He was there because his best friend said he didn’t do it, and he loved his friend.”
Publicly, Kardashian sat by O.J.’s side every day during the trial, and even when he wasn’t there, spent time with him playing gin rummy at the county jail. He was the closest to knowing what was going on in O.J.’s head besides O.J. himself. Even the coroner told Kardashian, “I want to tell you, I wish I had a friend like you.” That was essentially Kardashian’s function during the trial as well. He wasn’t a legal strategist, having renewed his law license last-minute to join the defense team, but pivotal nonetheless. During the trial, Kardashian told the Los Angeles Times, “I know O.J. better than anyone on the legal team. There are so many things I know about his personality. My job is really strategy and liaison between the lawyers and O.J.”
Still, Robert Kardashian is one of the more enigmatic figures from the O.J. Simpson trial. Even though his children and ex-wife Kris Jenner have eventually become symbols of the very American thirst for fame, Kardashian himself was a private man. Unlike the other major figures from the trial, he didn’t write a tell-all book, even though he may have had the juiciest gossip. Eventually though, he provided the basis for Lawrence Schiller and James Willwerth’s book on the trial, American Tragedy: The Uncensored Story of the Simpson Defense, where he gave voice to his nagging doubts. Written in an omniscient third-person style, the book ends on a note of misgiving:
Bob started out believing in O.J.’s innocence. But over the months, he has begun to doubt — quietly at first, then more insistently. In public he has never wavered. He has kept his private thoughts private. Now the jury has spoken, and, as Kardashian has feared for a long time, it has settled nothing. Kardashian knows his doubts will never leave him, his friendship with O.J. will never be the same. He has learned a great deal. He wonders if Simpson has.
His public admission would come by way of a 20/20 interview with Barbara Walters when American Tragedy was published in October of 1996. “I have doubts,” he admitted to Walters. “The blood evidence is the biggest thorn in my side. That causes me the greatest problems. So I struggle with the blood evidence.”
The People v. O.J. Simpson wrote this doubt into the series even though Kardashian is a peripheral figure in their chief source material, Jeffrey Toobin’s book, The Run of His Life. It’s Kardashian whom we see emerging from the courtroom after the verdict comes down in Tuesday night’s finale: Stricken, appalled, and filled with doubt. He looks at Marcia Clark, and his face says it all: What have we done? “Robert Kardashian looked devastated when he heard the verdict. He knew,” Clark told Vulture after watching the finale. “I could see it on his face. There was no need for words, just like in the series.”
Indeed, it’s Robert Kardashian who serves as the mirror for America’s growing disillusionment with the trial. As The People v. O.J. unfolded in the courtroom, Schwimmer stole every reaction shot, no more so than in the finale. His face, that long, drooping canvas of self-doubt, falls in disbelief when the prosecution presents the blood and DNA evidence, and by the end, he can hardly look his old friend in the eye. It’s a beautiful creative decision on show’s part, and as the trial further propelled American culture into the free-for-all of the 24-hour news cycle and reality television, one that encapsulates our collective loss of innocence.