It’s been so long since FX’s American Crime Story debuted (Obama was still president!) that it’s easy to forget how much trepidation surrounded that first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson. The O.J. trial was a circus at the time it unfolded. Producer Ryan Murphy’s track record seemed even more fragile in 2016 than it does now, circa the death rattle of Glee and misfires like Scream Queens. And the casting felt odd in so many places: David Schwimmer as Kim Kardashian’s dad? John Travolta doing TV for the first time in forever? And who was this Sterling K. Brown person who had been cast as Christopher Darden?
Yet nearly all of it worked. The writing (led by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski) and the performances — particularly by Brown, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, and Murphy favorite Sarah Paulson as Marcia Clark — transformed these cable news caricatures into three-dimensional humans again. Schwimmer was excellent (even if he was asked to say “Uncle Juice” a few times too many) at portraying Robert Kardashian’s dawning realization that he had enabled his best friend to get away with murder. Travolta was… well, five years later I’m still not entirely sure what Travolta was doing as Robert Shapiro, but he was surrounded by so many great and nuanced performances that his eccentric work functioned as a weirdly compelling accent on the whole thing.
The anthology series’ first sequel season, the ambitious but flawed The Assassination of Gianni Versace, went in a completely different direction in terms of narrative (it told its story backwards) and tone. In the four years since, Murphy has created seven new series, mostly for Netflix, and most of them forgettable. But American Crime Story is finally back with a new season, Impeachment, about President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. It features yet another all-star cast, mixing Murphy regulars like Paulson and Judith Light with newcomers to his orbit like Clive Owen and Edie Falco. And it’s once again taking on a bit of history that any viewer of a certain age will feel as if they already know by heart. But with the exception of Beanie Feldstein’s wonderful, deeply sympathetic portrayal of Lewinsky (who was a producer on the season), Impeachment is unfortunately everything one might have feared about The People v. O.J. before it debuted.
Sarah Burgess is the lead writer here, centering the show on Lewinsky’s friendship — if you can call it that, given what transpired — with Linda Tripp (Paulson), a bitter former White House employee who, like Lewinsky, was transferred to an out-of-the-way Pentagon job early in the Clinton administration. Like too many current shows, especially docudramas like this, Impeachment employs a nonlinear timeline. We begin with the day in 1998 when Lewinsky discovered Tripp had secretly recorded their conversations and turned them over to federal prosecutors working with independent counsel Kenneth Starr (Dan Bakkedahl). Then, the show bounces back and forth through the Nineties to explore the Whitewater loan scandal; the sexual harassment lawsuit brought against Clinton (Owen) by former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford); the behind-the-scenes machinations of future superstar pundits Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner); Clinton’s involvement with other women like Tripp’s friend Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser); and more. As is usually the case with this kind of structure, the time-hopping creates more problems than it solves, though viewers who lived through the saga will mostly be able to follow with the help of periodic date chyrons.
The larger issue is that Burgess and her collaborators (Murphy directed the premiere) seem content to skim the surface with nearly all of these famous figures. Paulson’s Tripp in particular is a disaster. First, there’s the awkward, fat-shaming spectacle of a slim and beautiful actor waddling around in a padded suit and facial prosthetics to play a character who is presented as palpably uncomfortable with her appearance. (The show also never misses a chance to show us what Linda is snacking on and stress-eating.) But beyond that discomfort, and what it says about her larger desperation for attention and influence, Impeachment has nothing to say about who Linda Tripp was, or what motivated her. She’s a two-dimensional villain — even the periodic moments where she seems to feel guilt over what she’s doing to Monica are too brief to really inform her characterization — and she’s one of the two central figures of a 10-hour story!
Too many of the other characters seem barely distinguishable from their SNL parody versions (which are glimpsed in a late episode where Tripp is horrified to see John Goodman playing her). Clive Owen is buried under so much latex, he may as well be the depressed prank-show host from the latest season of I Think You Should Leave. And his accent is all over the place: sometimes a caricatured Clinton voice, at others something as unrecognizable as the Children of Men star’s face. Burgess at least has a clearer and slightly more nuanced take on Clinton than she does on Tripp, framing him as a pathological liar and narcissist who can’t even fathom the harm he’s doing to someone like Lewinsky.
It’s enough to make you appreciate the blasé approach SNL itself took to Gerald Ford in its first season, where Chevy Chase didn’t make any effort to look or sound like the Commander-in-Chief, and just decided on a comedic take for his “Ford.” Something more dramatic like Impeachment would of course want to go deeper than that, and a few of the supporting performances (Ashford in particular as Jones, who becomes an unwitting pawn in what Coulter later bluntly describes as an attempted coup d’etat) get there. Just not nearly enough of them. Smulders with a platinum wig looks uncannily like the young Ann Coulter, but the lower register she speaks in makes it sound like she’s doing a broad impression rather than giving a real performance. (Falco, who’s never less than human on screen even on something silly like 30 Rock, is barely in the seven episodes critics were given to review.)
Though Lewinsky is entangled with all these other figures, the show Beanie Feldstein is in feels very different — and much better — than the one everyone else is in. Perhaps not coincidentally, her physical transformation is limited to her hair, and she’s playing Lewinsky as a person rather than as a familiar set of tics from 20th-century news clips. We see the painful push-pull between Lewinsky’s attraction to her president and her understanding that this is very unhealthy for her. In one notable sequence, she shows up outside the Oval Office for an impromptu rendezvous with Clinton, learns he’s watching G.I. Jane with daughter Chelsea, and proceeds to verbally beat herself up for failing to recognize how little her lover cares about her. It’s a great performance, and the center of the season’s highlight: a sixth episode about the very long day Lewinsky spent in the custody of Starr’s goons (led by Colin Hanks as Mike Emmick).
At one point, while Tripp is trying to prevent Lewinsky from getting her infamous semen-stained blue dress dry cleaned — thus eliminating the only physical evidence of the affair, and ruining Tripp’s hopes of a book deal — she brings up her time watching O.J. Simpson’s trial and all its talk of DNA evidence. Unfortunately, the wink at the original American Crime Story season only underscores all the things People v. O.J. got right that Impeachment gets wrong, by offering a shallow, Wikipedia-style synopsis of history with precious little insight into what happened, and why.
Impeachment: American Crime Story debuts September 7th on FX, with episodes streaming on Hulu the day after. I’ve seen seven of 10 episodes.