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Emmys 2016: Sarah Paulson encapsulates what The People v. O.J. Simpson got so, so right

It was an awards magnet for a reason.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Late in her speech after winning the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Limited Series or Made for TV Movie, Sarah Paulson gave a shout-out to Marcia Clark, the woman she played on television in FX’s nine-time Emmy winning The People v. O.J. Simpson.

Paulson said she had, like so many Americans, reduced Clark, the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, to a two-dimensional person, to someone it was easy to make the butt of a joke. But as she got to know the former attorney, Paulson found herself realizing just how badly that caricature missed the mark of the real woman.

That, in a nutshell, is part of why The People v. O.J. Simpson worked as well as it did: It took events that Americans had written off as fodder for late-night comedy and found the beating, emotional heart of them. In its portrayal of the attorneys at the trial’s center, the miniseries brought humanity back to people who had been written off as Saturday Night Live sketch fodder 20 years ago.

And Paulson wasn’t the only beneficiary — Sterling K. Brown won Supporting Actor for playing Christopher Darden (another prosecutor), and Courtney B. Vance won Lead Actor for playing Johnnie Cochran (the head defense attorney).

All three actors were a major part of People v. O.J.’s main argument about the trial: that it had predicted most of the issues we’re still worried about today. Through Cochran, it viewed the broken relationship between black people and the police officers supposedly meant to protect them, while Darden proved the series’ most complex character — both understanding that black men are prosecuted for crimes they didn’t commit all the time and not believing that O.J. Simpson’s acquittal would somehow serve as a balm for that festering national wound.

But it was Paulson’s Clark who was at the center of many of the series’ best moments. (Indeed, the series’ writing win was for an episode centered on Clark.) She wasn’t just the attorney who lost a seemingly open-and-shut case — she was at the center of America’s complicated relationship with women in professional positions.

The People v. O.J. Simpson isn’t perfect, but its messiness is part of why it’s such important, vital television. It doesn’t present a staid reconstruction of the past — it creates something that bleeds and seeps into the present. And that’s why it proved such an Emmy darling.

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