Earlier this week, John Koblin of The New York Times Business Section pondered an extremely pressing concern on everyone’s mind: why is the third season of the based-on-true-stories anthology series American Crime Story, this time focused on the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, not a big hit like the last two seasons were?!
After all, he notes in the article that it “has a lot going for it, including an A-list cast … and the sumptuous production touches that Mr. [Ryan] Murphy’s fans have come to expect of his shows!” Lavish production values and famous stars never fail to get audiences interested in watching depictions of sexual predation being cynically leveraged as a power play by corrupt elites, as we all know. Plus, the show’s upcoming premiere “attracted lots of media coverage!” I mean, what kind of world have we come to when the intensity of mass media hype alone can’t strong-arm viewers into feigning curiosity about this thing they’re being told they have to be interested in? And, uh… let’s see… a-and “the reviews overall were ‘generally favorable,’ according to the website Metacritic!” Because nothing gets me more excited for an upcoming series than “generally favorable” reviews, including Awards Radar’s own Matt Passantino, who raved that the show “doesn’t have a strong enough vantage point for viewers to latch onto” and “would be far more compelling if it didn’t feel like the topic has been exhausted.” Hang on, I need to set aside an entire weekend to binge-watch this after reading such a breathless endorsement from my trusted colleague! Why oh why is this season suffering such low ratings!?
The answer has nothing to do with the show being “not available on any major streaming platform and won’t be for another 10 months.” I mean, for one thing, a simple Google search shows that you can stream it right now if you have a Premium Hulu subscription, a YouTube TV Premium subscription, or have $15 (or even $20 to enjoy those “sumptuous production touches” in glorious HD!) to blow on the entire third season via YouTube, Amazon Prime, Google Play, and Vudu. All pricey options, admittedly, but I feel pretty confident in wagering that even if this show were made “easy to stream,” even if Ryan Murphy put out every single episode for free on YouTube, most people still wouldn’t bother to watch it. The corporate backroom dealing Koblin describes in the piece between (the company formerly known as) 20th Century Fox and Netflix and the overall viewership shift from cable television to streaming is… I guess interesting if you’re into those kinds of stories, but also incidental.
No, the main reason Impeachment is flopping is because most people don’t care about the Clinton impeachment story, anymore. Why the hell would they? Bill Clinton left office over twenty years ago. There were adults old enough to vote in last year’s presidential election who literally weren’t even born yet on his last day as Commander-in-Chief. His wife tried and failed to become President five years ago, and has since retired from politics. Monica Lewinsky is now in her late 40’s, and far from the (completely disproportionate and unjustified, let’s be clear) social pariah status she suffered in the immediate aftermath of the scandal, now seems weirdly gleeful in joking on Twitter about the many rap lyrics she inspired in the Aughts. Meanwhile, we’re not even a year out from a violent insurrection on the United States Capitol attempting to reverse a legitimate election result, the planet is still hurtling towards worldwide climate catastrophe, and the deadliest airborne pandemic in American history is still raging on in this country despite our widespread access to a free vaccine for nearly a full year.
To put this into some historical perspective, imagine if the American press obsessed over President Warren G. Harding’s extramarital affair with Nan Britton, including a radio teleplay dramatizing it, in the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Insane, right? Yet those two events were closer together in time than us re-litigating “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” again in the Year of Our Lord 2021.
So… what exactly were you expecting audiences to dutifully tune in for, John? What new insight was this show supposed to provide them? Was anyone these days honestly still confused over whether it was completely inappropriate for a married elected official to pursue a sexual relationship, even a consensual one, with an intern almost thirty years his junior? Did you really think this was the part of our 42nd President’s legacy in need of deep examination? If you and Murphy really wanted us to dive into the malfeasance of his past, maybe zero in on welfare reform, or as it was grotesquely titled in 1996, the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act?” Combine that with his repeal of Glass–Steagall in 1999 and you have the first sparks of what lit the fuse for the economic time bomb that exploded just under a decade later. That seems a little more scandalous than some Oval Office heavy petting, wouldn’t you say?
Or hey, if you want to stick to prurient sex scandals, Ghislaine Maxwell claims that she has smoking gun proof of him procuring the “services” of her late associate Jeffrey Epstein’s “Lolita Express.” Did you know that? She’s also claiming similar smoking gun proof regarding former President Trump. So that’s two men whom we entrusted with the nuclear codes who (allegedly!) procured sex from trafficked children. Seems like a bigger deal, doesn’t it? Seems like something we should be talking more about? The very real possibility that we have two living ex-Presidents who are (allegedly!) sex criminals?
It really shouldn’t be a mystery as to why The People vs O.J. Simpson was a cultural phenomenon compared to the wet fart that is Impeachment. The first season was released at very nearly the ideal time; it was on the cusp of a presidential election that came to be defined by racial conflict and deep divisions over the dysfunctions of our justice system, and just a few years after the Ferguson protests and George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin. We were due for a reevaluation of the “Trial of the Century,” and Ryan Murphy provided that to us, along with a semi-justified rehabilitation of Marcia Clark’s public image and an acknowledgment of some uncomfortable truths about race and criminal justice in America that we weren’t ready to have among the simplistic “did O.J. do it?!” arguments we were fixated on back then.
The investigation and impeachment of Bill Clinton were transparently partisan theatrics by a desperate Republican Party who had been crying “Wolf!” for years and wanted to save face with a public that had come to largely approve of their hated enemy’s job performance throughout the late 90’s. But also, Bill Clinton is a womanizing sleaze who had no business being President and should have resigned like a man so that Al Gore could have headed into the 2000 election with incumbency on his side. These are not groundbreaking insights by any means, but observations most adults my age came to and put to bed quite some time ago. It’s long past time the Gen-X gatekeepers of American culture and pop politics did likewise.
And give us an American Crime Story season on the McMartin Preschool Trial, Ryan Murphy! Good lord, you want to dramatize an event we actually need to be reminded of, there you go…