The most memorable scene in Tuesday’s truly sensational premiere of FX’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story does not involve a glove, a white Bronco, or John Travolta’s revelatory camp turn as gregarious attorney Robert Shapiro.
It belongs to Kim Kardashian. And, really, that’s quite fitting.
To say that the trial of O.J. Simpson—the “Trial of the Century”—gave birth to the 24-hour news cycle would be, well, the understatement of the century.
It’s estimated that over 100 million people tuned in to the exhaustive coverage of the trial, which blanketed networks, turned CNN into a blockbuster news force, and ushered in a new medium through which to turn players in salacious true crime scandals into media stars—and the new age of reality TV.
But it wasn’t just Simpson, attorney Marcia Clark, Johnnie Cochran, or the bumbling detectives who splashed across our TV screens for the length of the trial, having a cultural omnipresence so powerful that their presence still lingers in the zeitgeist today.
It was Faye Resnick. It was Kato Kaelin. Heck, it was Robert Kardashian and his ex-wife Kris Jenner.
Watching E!, Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise, or picking up a magazine with in-depth coverage of the lives of reality TV stars, critics of the genre often bemoan the age of celebrities who are famous for nothing. “Famous for being famous” is the phrase we’ve adopted for those whose lives become of public interest for the simple reason that we’ve seen them on TV.
You can’t script a “character” as outsized and ridiculous as Kato Kaelin, the surfer-boy buffoon whose parasitic thirst for limelight turned his role as a minor witness in the Simpson case into a career as a TV personality. Perhaps he wasn’t as shrewd as Jenner was in capitalizing on the public’s tiny cravings for more by delivering veritable feasts of material for them to chow on—in her case, the Keeping Up With the Kardashians series and its accompanying empire.
The O.J. Simpson case begat a rabid 24-hour news cycle, which in turn begat 24-hour cable programming. You need stars to fill it. The Kardashians are happy to oblige.
It’s alarming in the best, most hilarious way when you first see the Kardashian children—adolescent Kourtney, Kim, Khloe, and young Rob—running on to the screen in The People vs. O.J. Simpson. You don’t expect them to show up, but then you realize, duh, of course they’d play a part.
Kris Jenner was famously Nicole Brown Simpson’s close friend, and the Kardashians’ father, Robert, was one of O.J. Simpson’s most intimate confidantes and eventually a member of his defense team. Divorced parents of a brood of children, one with loyalty to a person on trial for murder and the other his murder victim? Again, you can’t script something like this.
In The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Jenner is played by Selma Blair, who cameos with Connie Britton as Faye Resnick. Together they do that thing that Ryan Murphy, who directed the premiere, does so well: They are both campy comedic relief and essential in giving emotional and human context to the events at hand.
Nicole Brown Simpson was their friend, and even though you meet them while they wear silly hats and gossip at her funeral, they’re key in reminding the audience that Nicole wasn’t a bit player in a media spectacle. She was a person, and a murder victim.
You meet the Kardahian kids at the funeral, too. “Kourtney! Stop running. Put away that candy,” Jenner barks at her young children who are running amuck.
When you process who it is Blair’s character is talking to—these girls whose lives we’ve come to know every sordid detail of, in great specificity—you giggle in reflexive shock. These reigning reality TV queens were closely connected to the very event that may have spawned the genre they now rule, and they were just little girls when it happened.
The next time you see the Kardashian kids is in Episode 2, when they excitedly huddle around a TV set to watch their father’s first press conference on behalf of Simpson. The reporters have no idea who Robert Kardashian is, let alone why he is reading a letter that Simpson gave him to read to his fans before jetting off in a Bronco for the chase seen by the world.
“Oh my god it’s daddy!” they scream. When a reporter asks Kardashian to clarify and spell his name, the kids erupt in a chant: “Kar-dash-i-an! Kar-dash-i-an!” Does it seem gratuitous to inject the world’s most famous reality stars into a narrative in this way? Maybe. But it’s also emblematic of a hard-to-describe tone that Murphy strikes that makes The People vs. O.J. Simpson so remarkable and singular.
He’s winking at us the whole time. How could he not? It’s not like we don’t know what happens. But in admitting that and then inviting us to acknowledge the wilder, sillier parts of the Simpson trial circus, he’s able to then delve deeper and cut to the rawer, realer repercussions of what ensued.
While Jenner and the Kardashian kids only factor into a handful of American Crime Story scenes, Robert Kardashian is one of its main players. David Schwimmer inhabits Kardashian with a harried concern and heartbreaking loyalty.
Watching the real-life trial, you may have thought of him as a skeezy pawn in the celebrity machine that got Simpson so much special treatment early in the trial process. But as he’s portrayed by Schwimmer in this series, you get a sense of a big-hearted warmth and optimism that not only needed to help his good friend Juice, but also carried the burden of that loved friend’s troubles on his shoulders.
Which brings us to that Kim Kardashian scene.
Near the end of Episode 1, in a clip that’s already been released teasing the series, the action is centered in Kardashian’s Encino home, where Simpson was hiding out from the swarm of press that invaded his own Brentwood estate.
Simpson is sleeping when Travolta’s Shapiro gently wakes him to tell him that a warrant has been issued for his arrest and he only has a few hours to turn himself in. As a groggy Simpson absorbs the weight of this news, the camera pans up to reveal, in stark contrast, the lightness of his location. Jonathan Taylor Thomas and Joey Lawrence posters plaster the walls. He is in Kim Kardashian’s room.
As the weight of how much trouble he is in sinks in, Simpson threatens suicide, handing Robert Kardashian a note as he holds a gun to his own head. When Robert tries to stop him, O.J. escapes—back to Kim’s room.
“O.J., no, please, this is the room where my daughter sleeps,” Kardashian pleads. “O.J., please don’t kill yourself in Kimmy’s bedroom!”
Is this the most important scene in the premiere? Absolutely not. But it’s the scene that will no doubt light Twitter on fire Tuesday night when it airs. When it does, it will be a bit of poeticism, too.
A TV series that alleges that O.J. Simpson threatened to kill himself in Kim Kardashian’s childhood bedroom. It’s a marriage of old and new. The man who, arguably, could be to blame for the reality TV craze and the woman who, 20 years later, is its biggest benefactor. And he nearly shot himself in her bedroom.
Asked last month—by reporters who had seen the premiere and gotten a kick out of the Kardashian cameos—just how much of a role the kids would have in the series, Murphy downplayed it. “In the 10 episodes, there are over 400 scenes that were written,” he said. “Of those 400 scenes, only four or five of them involve the Kardashian children. That gives you a grasp on how important we felt they were to the story.”
The Kardashians, to Murphy’s credit, appear in just the right dosage: enough to make an impact, but sparingly enough not to steal the main focus. But their importance? We’re still seeing it today.
Many would say that the most captivating and resonant character in The People vs. O.J. Simpson, and the real-life trial two decades ago as well, is the media circus that danced around it. The world is different now. News is different now. The idea of entertainment and celebrity is different now. And you can draw a line from Kim Kardashian back to O.J. Simpson and chart its evolution.
Fellow People vs. O.J. Simpson executive producer Scott Alexander hit on this. “We thought it’d be valuable to have them there for a little sprinkling,” he said of the Kardashians. “There were a lot of themes that I wanted to hit in the scripts—the 24-hour news cycle, the beginning of reality TV. [The Kardashians] were emblematic of the beginning of this time, when someone could become famous and no one would understand why they were famous.”
So their roles in a blockbuster new O.J. Simpson series? Fits them like a glove.