Ryan Murphy’s television empire has encompassed a great deal of subjects, from a high school glee club to the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. His American Crime Story anthology series (which began with The People vs. O.J. Simpson, followed by The Assassination of Gianni Versace) aims to put a spotlight on ripped from the tabloid topics with an addictive and entertaining spin. The first edition of American Crime Story was much more successful – perhaps the best thing he has done to date – than the second and the latest, Impeachment: American Crime Story, falls squarely between them.
Impeachment brings the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal back into the limelight – though there’s an argument it never really left – for Murphy’s latest trip back into recent history. Clinton was only the second president to be impeached, something that was rare until a washed-up game show host was elected, and impeachment became necessary and repeated. Like anything regarding politics, everyone has an opinion about why Clinton was impeached (though, not convicted or removed), but Impeachment isn’t worried about taking a stance; Murphy is in it for the scandalous headlines of it all because that’s what makes entertaining television.
Impeachment certainly is entertaining but would be far more compelling if it didn’t feel like the topic has been exhausted. The similarly tabloid infused The People vs. O.J. Simpson had a much strong point of view than Impeachment, centering on Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson), who was the lead prosecutor in the case. The season was more about her and the effect the case had on her life, than it was about Simpson, which gave an interesting new perspective to a well-documented case.
Paulson returns to Murphy’s world (she is also a mainstay of the American Horror Story franchise) as Linda Tripp, who became an infamous figure in the Clinton scandal. Tripp worked in the White House, but was transferred to the Pentagon, where she met Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) and the two of them became unlikely friends. What began as pleasant exchanges, turned into Lewinsky confiding in Tripp about her relationship with a mysterious man, which Lewinsky would later tell Tripp was President Clinton (played in the series by Clive Owen). Tripp, as one could imagine, was shocked, but liked being a part of something bigger than herself and continued to be Lewinsky’s constant shoulder to cry on about her relationship. If you’re familiar with all the details about the scandal, you know Tripp doesn’t prove to be as trustworthy as Lewinsky had hoped.
The problem with Impeachment is it doesn’t have a strong enough vantage point for viewers to latch onto. At times, the series feels like Tripp’s, while Lewinsky and Clinton fade into the background. Other key members appear, including Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton, Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones, Billy Eichner as Matt Drudge and Colbie Smulders, who is having a blast channeling the gleefully toxic Ann Coulter.
Paulson gave one of the great television performances of the last decade as Marcia Clark, and her performance as Tripp might seem gimmickier behind the big glasses and unrecognizable appearance but is no less fascinating. Tripp carried herself with an air of importance she felt she deserved, but no one else appeared to think so as well. Paulson’s performance shows us Tripp might have known that, but suppressed such feelings, and when she became one of the very few people to know about the affair, it gave her a renewed sense of value. Tripp was painted as a villain at the time of the scandal, but Paulson’s performance allows for shades of sadness and even a little empathy. It’s okay to know Tripp wasn’t a kind person, but Paulson makes her a human and not a caricature, as any great actor should.
The Clintons remain the boogeymen of modern American politics, so it isn’t surprising Murphy would want to put this scandal back in the spotlight. Clinton deceived the country and was rightfully impeached for doing so, but the rumors and conspiracy theories that follow the Clintons remain pervasive. It would have been nice for Murphy to take a lesser-known story and given it the American Crime Story treatment, but sometimes it’s hard to let such things go, no matter what your politics may be. Everyone loves a good scandal.
The first six episodes were screened for this review.