The People vs. O.J. Simpson has a Kardashian problem
The People vs. O.J. has taken enormous pains to get inside the heads of the many people who found themselves unexpectedly sucked into the O.J. Simpson trial. On the defense side, there's Robert Shapiro (John Travolta), the lead council for O.J.'s dream team; F. Lee Bailey (Nathan Lane), the famed lawyer who argued the case that eventually formed the basis for The Fugitive; Jonnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), the flamboyant defense attorney with the prescience to recognize the greater racial implications of the trial; and O.J.'s best friend, Robert Kardashian (David Schwimmer), who unwittingly ends up in the spotlight after playing a key role in the immediate aftermath of Nicole Brown's murder.
For modern viewers, there's an implicit punchline in that last one. In 1994, no one recognized — or could even pronounce — the name "Kardashian." Today, it's hard to imagine an American who hasn't heard it. The People vs. O.J. occasionally plays up this irony by pivoting the camera to the Kardashian children, lurking like boogeymen on the margins of the series, as their father's growing fame sets the stage for today's inescapable Kardashian empire.
It's in these scenes that The People vs. O.J. feels most like a typical Ryan Murphy joint, mugging at its own cleverness with an ain't-I-a-stinker smirk. To the show's credit, some of these scenes, while distracting to modern audiences, are also accurate. (Yes — per the real Robert Kardashian, O.J. Simpson contemplated suicide while holed up in Kim's bedroom.)
But the centerpiece scenes of the Kardashian children are, by all accounts, a complete work of dramatic license. In the series premiere, the kids whoop at the TV as their dad reads O.J.'s disturbing suicide note, focused more on the thrill of seeing a Kardashian on TV than the deep, discomfiting weirdness of the reason why. (TMZ reports that Kim declared the scene "ridiculous"; while the Kardashian kids recalled watching the press conference, the cheering "never happened.")
Even that deeply unsubtle moment has nothing on this week's "The Dream Team," which opens with Robert Kardashian taking his kids to dinner at Los Angeles hot spot Chin Chin. "You're Richard Kordovian!" squeals the hostess — and while she gets the name wrong, she still gives them their pick of any table in the house.
Robert recognizes this unlikely perk as a teachable moment. "We are Kardashians, and in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous," he lectures. "Fame is fleeting, it's hollow. It means nothing at all without a virtuous heart." The lesson clearly falls on deaf ears; as he finishes speaking, the kids begin to fight over egg rolls. It's as subtle as a hammer to the skull, and it, too, is a fiction; while the Kardashians dined at Chin Chin on the Father's Day after the Bronco chase, there's no record of the conversation.
In general, I've always found this kind of wink-wink-nudge-nudge to be a pretty grating trope, because it encourages the audience to feel an unjustified, distancing sense of superiority to the characters, though they couldn't possibly know what we know anyway. (I don't think I've ever rolled my eyes harder at a movie than the moment in Titanic when Billy Zane sneeringly predicts that this "Picasso" will amount to nothing.) But it's a particularly distracting choice in The People vs. O.J., which derives pretty much all of its power from interrogating the version of the facts we all think we know, then dismantling those assumptions for the falsehoods they are.
In theory, that philosophy should extend to the Kardashians. In an interview with Time, executive producer Larry Karaszewski explained the impulse behind including the Kardashian kids in the story:
We didn't want to dwell on the Kardashian children but to leave them out of it, I think, would have been wrong as well. They were around for this case. To be a young child in the middle of this media circus, of turning on the TV and having your father’s initial appearance to the American public be during the Bronco chase where 90 million people were watching. Seeing the effect that had on their lives and their household, you can’t help but feel that maybe the germ of the Kardashian empire was planted at that moment. That growing up in this circus allowed them to navigate the circus that is currently happening in their TV show now. [Time]
The impulse to demonize the Kardashian kids reminds me of the similarly mean-spirited treatment of prosecutor Marcia Clark in the Netflix sitcom Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, in which Tina Fey plays Clark as an overconfident ditz who nearly botches the protagonist's can't-lose case. (Jerry Minor sits at her side in a similarly incompetent riff on Chris Darden.) The glib, one-dimensional parodies of Clark and Darden — who get a much more thoughtful and even-handed depiction by The People vs. O.J.'s Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown — turned out to be a rare off note in an otherwise sunny, compassionate sitcom.
How did the Kardashian kids actually feel about the O.J. Simpson trial? We don't need to guess — we already know. In a 2014 interview with Barbara Walters, Kris Jenner explained what the experience had been like for her children. "We've talked about it," she said. "I think that the thing that they remember is being, at the time, so confused. Because your parents, you know, are on different sides of a crazy situation, and this is Uncle O.J. and Auntie Nicole. People that they had grown up with." Kim Kardashian has described how painful she found the experience; during the trial, she and her siblings were forced to decide whether to sit with their mother or their father, in a physical and literal moment of choosing sides.
The Kardashian kid scenes aren't just inaccurate; they're uncharacteristically lazy, depicting the kids as brats so mesmerized by fame that they don't grieve for the woman who was practically a cherished aunt to them. What was it like to see their mother and father square off on the public stage, with Robert sitting at O.J.'s side during the trial while Kris comforted the Brown family? If you back away from the reflexive snark and the kneejerk punchline, there's the potential for a genuinely insightful (and even deeply affecting) exploration of how a media circus like the O.J. Simpson trial can shape the lives of the four kids suddenly thrust into the spotlight.
It's a missed opportunity to actually say something about the Kardashians, who — whether you like it or not — are some of the most important and influential cultural figures in the world today. It's also a weird piece of narrative dissonance for an otherwise excellent show. If The People vs. O.J. is doing anything well, it's making complex, sympathetic figures out of people who have long been caricatured and reviled in the public eye: Marcia Clark, Chris Darden, and Johnnie Cochran. Don't the Kardashians deserve the same treatment?