When news broke in Dec. 2014 that David Schwimmer would be playing Robert Kardashian Sr., the late father to Kim, ex-husband to Kris, and former best friend of O.J. Simpson, in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, I laughed. When the first shots of Schwimmer as Kardashian hit the internet in May 2015, showing a dour Schwimmer on set clenching a cup of coffee and sporting Kardashian’s distinctive skunk-like hair, I laughed even harder. Schwimmer’s casting—not to mention Cuba Gooding Jr.’s and John Travolta’s as Simpson and Robert Shapiro—seemed to reinforce one of Murphy’s biggest flaws, how he often lets unabashed star-fucking get in the way of actual quality storytelling. But I’m not laughing anymore.
This is Schwimmerssance. Strap in.
The People v. O.J. has been a stunning work of art—poignant, heartbreaking, thrilling, and often downright bewildering. Credit Murphy, executive producer Brad Falchuk, and screenwriters Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski for pinpointing the O.J. Simpson trial as the seminal moment that celebrity, media, race, and gender all collided, and expertly pulling those strands out one by one over the course of ten episodes. But beneath the story of the trial and the big messages that American Crime Story spent full episodes on, was the compelling story of one man’s moral dilemma, anchored by a shockingly strong, vulnerable performance by David Schwimmer.
The early episodes of American Crime Story find Schwimmer’s Kardashian rushing to the side of his best friend, whose ex-wife has just been brutally murdered, and who is clearly on the verge of being accused for that murder. Not only conflicted by the complex relationships that surrounded the tragedy—O.J.’s slain ex, Nicole Brown, was close with Kris Jenner, Kardashian’s ex-wife—Kardashian was at once defending his friend out of instinct and approaching the notion that that friend may have actually committed this horrible crime. Schwimmer depicts this inner conundrum quietly at first, playing more befuddled than anything, letting the pressure build until it absolutely must explode. When he loses his cool in O.J.’s driveway, shaking catharsis out of the steering wheel of his Mercedes as the Juice rides down the highway in a white Bronco, you feel the oppressive dread that’s overtaking this man stuck in a situation he never asked to be thrust into.
Kardashian’s internal conflict only builds as the series goes on. While the jury glazes over during testimony about DNA, and how resolutely it connects O.J. to the scene of the crime, Kardashian woefully perks up. Years after the trial, Robert Kardashian admitted that he harbored doubts over O.J.’s innocence, and through Schwimmer, we see the moments when those doubts arose—when this man began realizing that a person he idolized and loved had brutally murdered two people, and then lied emotionlessly about it. By the end of the trial—as O.J. leaves a happy, free man—all Kardashian can do is vomit and cry, because what else is left?
An argument can be made that the writers of The People v. O.J. deserve the credit for creating this subtly sad, underlining story about Robert Kardashian. And while the outline—and the brilliance of constructing it by sprinkling small Kardashian-centric moments throughout the series—is indeed the work of Murphy et al, it doesn’t reach its emotional peak without Schwimmer. The actor turned his signaturely hokey mopiness into a weapon, bringing a character who was totally fucked to life. Even the declarations of “Juice!”—hilarious when strung together sans context—are draped in desperation. And the moment when Schwimmer’s Kardashian leaves the courtroom having just seen O.J. exonerated is a real-life embodiment of the Mr. Krabs meme—the biggest compliment I can give something in 2016. In a series that featured career-making performances from Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown, Schwimmer stands as a peer among them—not as a blemish.
Positioning David Schwimmer as this year’s Matthew McConaughey makes sense for a number of reasons. Both actors were given opportunities on buzzy, prestigious anthology series, and both turned in career performances. But most importantly, neither were even considered “good” before their late-life breakouts. McConaughey was living off one line from a 1993 movie and puttering around in bad rom-coms before Rust Cohle. Schwimmer meanwhile, has been almost entirely silent since starring as Ross in Friends, in which he had one good line over the span of 236 episodes (it’s this one). No one expected McConaughey to kill on True Detective, and from there win an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club—and I don’t think anyone expected to be moved by Ross Geller playing Kim Kardashian’s dad. But some actors have a moment like this, where a role comes along that lets them inject years of disparaging reviews, of not being taken seriously, into a complex character with pathos and true emotion. And they don’t pass up the opportunity.
Schwimmer’s next role, in which he plays a desperate Bronx native in AMC’s Feed the Beast, isn’t quite as juicy (pun intended) as Dallas Buyers Club was for McConaughey. AMC has struggled to find compelling vehicles in the post-Mad Men/Breaking Bad era, and it’s hard at this point to tell if Feed the Beast will be more Better Call Saul and less Hell on Wheels. The Schwimmerssance may be short-lived. But that’s besides the point. He’s already done what we didn’t think he could do: put Ross Geller in the ground, prove his worth, and make us feel his pain.