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There’s no question that Impeachment, the latest season of FX’s acclaimed American Crime Story anthology series, has expended a great deal of care and money toward re-creating the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Every 1990s period prop is arranged just so (the SlimFast shakes! The Body Shop bags!), every actor physically transfigured into their real-life counterparts, every major twist of the story dutifully played out onscreen.
But less clear, especially at first, is what all this effort is for. Even as the season zeroes in on the finer details of the story (drawing primarily from Jeffrey Toobin’s book A Vast Conspiracy), it struggles to locate a larger point worthy of the time it takes to convey it. For a star-studded drama about an explosive historical moment, Impeachment feels oddly static.
'Impeachment: American Crime Story'
Airdate: Tuesday, Sept. 7
Executive producers: Ryan Murphy, Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Alexis Martin Woodall, Sarah Burgess, Brad Falchuk, Michael Uppendahl, Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander
The problems begin with the show’s structure. Before cutting to the heart of the scandal, Impeachment spends its first three hourlong episodes (out of seven given to critics for review, and out of 10 total for the season) establishing the political landscape of the era and getting viewers up to speed on all the central players: Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner). Arguably, this is all important context. Impeachment seems intended as a corrective to the oversimplified framing of the story by pop culture, the media, the political establishment and our own prejudice or ignorance; to pare it down too much would be to undermine the show’s very reason for existing.
But Impeachment goes about conveying this information by jumping back and forth across the 1990s and scattering its attention across dozens of thinly written individuals, which keeps those early episodes from building any real sense of momentum. The characters are additionally saddled with dialogue that prioritizes blunt efficiency over personality or insight. The show could wait for viewers to form their own impressions of who Linda Tripp is and what makes her tick, or it could have a supporting character come out and yell at Linda that she likes butting into other people’s business because she has nothing else going on. It could trust viewers to connect the dots between past and present, or it could have Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) declare, “After this, just think what kind of flabby con men will see a path to the White House!”
All the while, Impeachment refrains from offering a perspective more specific than Important Prestige Series, as signaled by its elaborate sets and dramatically lit interiors. From scene to scene, it waffles between a chilly political thriller, a Coens-esque dark comedy (specifically Burn After Reading, which also features a character inspired by Linda Tripp) and, at one point, a film noir parody complete with steam rising from city streets on a dark night, without committing to any particular tone or combination of tones. These episodes — which, again, make up almost a third of the season — don’t inspire emotional investment so much as dutiful note-taking, in hopes that all this laborious setup will amount to something eventually.
Thankfully it does, at least to a point. Impeachment finally starts to gain steam around the midpoint of the season, when its scattershot storytelling coalesces around Linda’s betrayal of Monica. The sixth installment, which centers almost entirely on the 11 hours FBI agents spent trying to “flip” Monica to their side, is a series highlight in no small part because its narrow focus allows episode director Ryan Murphy (who also serves as executive producer) to burrow deeper into Lewinsky’s perspective than the series has for any of the other characters thus far. Off-kilter camera angles and distorted sound replicate her disoriented state of mind, and the tension mounts until it tips almost into the surreal.
No actor benefits more from the midseason turn than Feldstein, who plays Lewinsky’s growing panic with such raw desperation that her anguish becomes our own. The relative restraint of Feldstein’s makeup proves to her benefit, as her Monica feels immediate and present in a way that Paulson and Owen, from under their mountains of (sometimes problematic) prosthetics and makeup, do not. But the show’s critical appraisal of Linda eventually gains more nuance too, as the barely concealed glee that defined the character at the start of the series (Paulson elevates performative scoffing to an art) gives way to more complicated emotions once she’s faced with the fallout.
In its marketing, Impeachment touts itself as a reexamination of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal from the perspectives of the women in it, and it largely stays true to that mission. Prominent men like Bill Clinton and Ken Starr (Dan Bakkedahl) are positioned as supporting players while Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones get the spotlight, and that shift in perspective makes a statement in itself. It’s impossible to watch Monica twist herself in knots over Bill’s callousness, or Linda watch herself become the butt of Saturday Night Live jokes, or Paula wilt under the condescending scrutiny of misogynistic journalists, and not compare their treatment back then to their treatment now, here, in this very series.
Yet there’s still something lacking in Impeachment‘s reconsideration of these women, at least in the episodes I’ve seen so far. For all the sympathy the series lavishes on their ordeals throughout the scandal, it seems rather less curious about who they were outside it — about whether Monica flourished at the Department of Defense while waiting by the phone for Bill, or what dreams Paula had for her life beyond trying to pacify an angry husband. That Impeachment takes pains to take these much-maligned women seriously is certainly an improvement over the casual cruelty and targeted abuse they endured in the ’90s. But in reducing them, once again, to the roles they played rather than the people they were (or are — Lewinsky serves as an EP on the series), Impeachment feels a little too little, a little too late.
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