David Schwimmer as Robert KardashianTo the generation that grew up watching the O.J. Simpson trial, and living in its aftermath, David Schwimmer will perhaps always be known as the gawky and awkward Ross Geller from Friends, which debuted three months after the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. That association is essential to understanding the genius of casting Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian, the low-key attorney with a lapsed license and a steadfast (if naïve) sense of loyalty to his long-time friend. As Kardashian gets drawn deeper into the media circus—and closer to Simpson—he becomes a first-hand witness to the football star’s increasingly suspect behavior, from his suicidal actions before the Bronco chase to his botched testimony prep to way-too-breezy poker nights in LA County Jail. As Kardashian grimly tolerates O.J.’s outbursts and indulgences, Schwimmer conveys the nagging weight of his conscience with that droopy, on-the-verge-of-tears look familiar to Ross fans—only here, it conveys his own paralysis and sheer exhaustion, which makes Kardashian’s reversal-of-opinion a minor tragedy in its own right. Kardashian doesn’t have the flashiest moments, but his two key scenes—confessing his wavering faith in Juice’s innocence to A.C. Cowlings (Malcolm-Jamal Warner) and telling his now-infamous wife Kris (Selma Blair) that he’ll stand next to O.J., but never associate with him after the trial—make this one of the finest roles of Schwimmer’s career. —K.M. McFarland
John Travolta as Robert ShapiroWatching John Travolta play Robert Shapiro is a sublime experience, because it forces us to believe a magic trick, even as we understand exactly how the trick works: After the shock of his big-browed, sucked-cheek appearance wears off in the first episode, Travolta disappears into the character, playing the hubris-prone attorney with wry exuberance. This kind of deep-dig is a departure for Travolta, whose on-screen appeal is tied to his undeniable, impossible-to-hide off-screen essence. Even when he’s doing a New York accent in Look Who’s Talking or sporting a truly unfortunate goatee-happy-trail in Swordfish, the audience can see Travolta the actor (and celebrity) underneath. But in The People v. O.J. Simpson, Travolta has mostly achieved the impossible: he’s unTravolta’d himself.
The secret is in his voice. With his jaw locked tight, Travolta lets a high-pitched mewl animate Shapiro—a sound that’s nothing like the actor’s own purring timbre. And he over-annunciates every word, subtly emphasizing how Shapiro seems to think he is the classiest man in the room. Watch his mouth at the press conference in Episode 2, “The Run of His Life”: How he pushes his bottom lip out when he feels affronted. How he purses tight as he watches Robert Kardashian read Simpson’s letter. How he micro-smiles while mentioning that Simpson complimented him before driving away in the Bronco. Sure, he also has masterful makeup and false eyebrows, but Travolta’s transformation goes beyond prosthetics: He’s embodied the narcissistic Shapiro down to his teeth. —Emily