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Emmys 2016: With O.J. Simpson nominations, voters hold up a period-piece mirror

It was the crime that rocked the country in the 1990s.

In 2016, it rocked television.

The killings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, for which O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder in 1995, solidified its status as the pop-cultural event of the moment when a scripted dramatization of the case on Thursday walked away with a load of Emmy nominations.

FX’s “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” garnered 22 nominations from the Television Academy, the second-most of any series. Those nods included the top category of outstanding limited series and six acting nominations, for the likes of Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark and Cuba Gooding Jr. as Simpson. In the supporting actor in a limited series category, performers from the show composed half the field.

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The nominations bring the O.J. case to a kind of entertainment closure even as its underlying issues still dominate the headlines. Together with Ezra Edelman’s 7.5-hour docuseries “O.J.: Made in America,” which became a sensation when ESPN aired it last month, they suggest that the Los Angeles trial remains at the fore of national consciousness.

“Though it took place more than 20 years ago, it was the beginning of a scratching of a scab off a wound,” John Landgraf, the president of FX, said. “The O.J. case was the crescendo of a moment that started with the civil rights movement and is still crescendoing today.”

Vance said Thursday that he thought the two O.J. pieces “changed the temperature” in the culture. “If you look behind closed doors, as I think we were able to do, you can understand the trial in a way that’s not just a cardboard cutout,” he said over the phone. “And then the ‘30 for 30’ piece shows you the beginnings of O.J. and all that was happening in the country, and together you start to get a complete picture.”

The O.J. case was the crescendo of a moment that started with the civil rights movement and is still crescendoing today.

— John Landgraf, president of FX

Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book about the case, “The People v. O.J.” brought together a who’s who of creative names behind the camera — including executive producer Ryan Murphy (“American Horror Story”), director John Singleton (“Boyz N in the Hood”) and the writing team of Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander (“The People vs. Larry Flynt”). It also garnered enthusiastic reviews for its potent and at times sly takes on well-known events.

But voters on Thursday also may have been responding to the social issues the series raised, which have continued to play out eerily on news channels and social media. Recent weeks have seen the fatal shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling by police and the killing of five Dallas police officers by Micah Xavier Johnson.

These incidents all speak to the interplay of race and the criminal justice system — the very matters O.J. brought to the surface.

“When we started the project three years ago,” Alexander said Thursday morning, “we weren’t sure if the world would just give it a big yawn. Once we started to drill into the story, and all of the shootings of black Americans started happening across the country, we started realizing, ‘Wait a minute we’re not writing a period piece. We’re dealing with stories torn from the headlines.’”

At that point, Alexander said, he and Karaszewski began exploring those ideas more fully in their scripts.

And those issues may have also drawn viewers — as many as 5 million for an individual episode — and generated watercooler talk.

Of course, the series’ popularity remains only part of the question. In the litmus test that is a hit TV show, the more pressing matter is whether Americans were watching with an increased awareness, a kind of clarity-through-distance.

Gil Garcetti, the former L.A. district attorney who prosecuted the Simpson case, said last month that he believed that white and black communities in Los Angeles now saw each others’ point of view, particularly over the acquittal, in a way they hadn’t before. “I think we are in a very different place,” he said. “There’s understanding that wasn’t there 20 years ago.”

Edelman said on Thursday he believed “Made in America” could lead to social changes but resisted a commonly held belief about this year of O.J. offerings.

“If there are people watching our movie who would otherwise have remain unmoved, agnostic or ignorant to what is happening, then we’ve made a contribution,” he said. “But I reject the idea that this is timely. It’s an accident of technology and social-media we’re talking about [racial bias in the system] now. If this movie was made six years ago it should still spur discussion because this is something that’s been happening across America for decades.”

The Emmys news also sets up an intriguing drama within the world of Hollywood awards. ESPN made a splash several months ago when it decided to qualify “O.J.: Made in America” for the Oscars in the documentary category. (The network decided to take that route and qualify the show for the Emmys next year.) Members of the motion picture academy are likely to be watching closely to see how the FX show does at the Emmys, with a big night influencing them in myriad ways. (Whether Emmys success increases their interest or cools their ardor is an open question.)

The two programs — scripted and documentary, star-laden and issue-driven — have been in a kind of dialogue since the ESPN series premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, just weeks ahead of the FX debut. The latter series then seized the pop-cultural mantle for months, until “Made in America” became a hit last month.

Some Emmys voters may even have been motivated to vote for, or at least pay closer attention to, “People v. O.J.” because of all the headlines “Made in America” was creating during the June voting window. And their decision on whether to recognize “Made in America” at next year’s Emmys could in turn depend on whether they feel it was sufficiently honored by the 2017 Oscars.

“I do think they reinforced each other,” said Landgraf, whose FX had a triumphant day Thursday, with 18 nominations for another limited series, “Fargo,” and a long-sought outstanding drama nomination for its critically lauded Cold War thriller “The Americans.” “It was kind of a one-two punch that kept the story present in a way each would never have been able to do on their own.”

How much the shows continue to keep the spotlight on race and justice remains an open question. Creators, at least, believe, there’s more at stake than prizes.

“What I want people to think about is that there’s more to think about,” “Made in America’s” Edelman told The Times earlier in the year. “This isn’t a story that started in June 1994 and ended in the fall of 1995. It started in the 1960s and even before that. And it continues today.”

Staff writer Meredith Blake contributed to this report.

Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

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