Impeachment as entertainment might seem impossible after years of slogging through the real thing. The Trump administration brought us day after day of melodrama, including overwrought performances on the House floor, and never fully stuck the landing.
But the FX drama "Impeachment: American Crime Story" manages to turn the dismal state of our democracy into a must-see limited series, pulling the narrative back to the quaint 1990s, when President Bill Clinton's (Clive Owen) relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) was presented as a national crisis.
Executive producer Ryan Murphy's 10-episode anthology series, which premiered Tuesday, Sept. 7, is propelled by the brand of brisk, addictive storytelling, stellar casting and high-end soap appeal that have defined the "American Crime Story" franchise since its first entry, "The People v. O.J. Simpson." It delves into the stories behind the political theater, following the women who were actively involved in — or involuntarily pulled into — the mammoth Republican effort to eject Clinton from the Oval Office.
Sarah Paulson does a phenomenal job portraying Linda Tripp, the former White House secretary who exposed the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky. The leak led to his impeachment, fueled the careers of far-right crusaders such as Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), and exposed the beginning of a divided Washington bent on revenge rather than governance. Additional players include Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton played a key role in the scandal, and, of course, Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco).
Owen and Falco are Bill and Hillary here. They nail it, from his laid-back mannerisms, Arkansas drawl and wandering hands to her awkward dance as an accomplished, ambitious woman struggling to fit the role of demure first lady and scorned wife. Feldstein is equally convincing as the beret-clad Lewinsky. She's naive but not stupid. She knows Bill has her on booty-call speed dial, but she's hopelessly infatuated with him — he's the president! Her fatal mistake is taking Tripp into her confidence.
"Impeachment" chronicles the start of their "friendship," after both women were transferred from the White House to work at the Pentagon. When Lewinsky disclosed details about her relationship with Clinton, the duplicitous Tripp saw an opportunity for revenge with a tell-all book. She was angry about being passed over for a promotion in the West Wing after her former boss Vince Foster took his own life, so she coaxed and manipulated Lewinsky to spill the beans, taping their phone conversations. Her 20 hours of secret recordings would later become central to Clinton's 1998 impeachment. Tripp died last year at the age of 70.
The real Monica Lewinsky is a producer on the series, which may explain why Tripp is portrayed as a bitter, self-serving monster who elicits no pity as she eats her sad, microwavable Weight Watchers dinners alone in front of the nightly news. The tone is set in the first episode, when Lewinsky heads to the mall to meet Tripp for lunch, only to be greeted by her and the FBI. "You treacherous bitch," Lewinsky tells Tripp.
Head writer Sarah Burgess and her team adapt Jeffrey Toobin's 1999 book, "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President," into a drama that tracks the anatomy of a scandal and the ways in which the changing mediascape — the rise of 24-hour cable news and the internet at the top of the list — capitalized on all the salaciousness. You'll need a flow chart and Google to keep up with the cast of characters and the roles they play in the saga: literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), commentator Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner), Lewinsky's mother, Marcia Lewis (Mira Sorvino), U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright (Kathleen Turner), and Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan (Blair Underwood), to name just a few.
"Impeachment" makes a point of showing how almost all of the women wrapped up in the Clinton scandal were used as pawns to either prop up or destroy one of the most beloved and hated U.S. presidents up to that point in modern history. They are the story.
The other fascinating takeaway is how insignificant the charges at the center of Clinton's impeachment — perjury and obstruction of justice — seem in comparison with what we've experienced since. He wasn't caught bragging on tape about sexually assaulting women or busted for paying off a porn star, nor was he impeached, twice, for soliciting foreign help to win an election and inciting a violent insurrection because he lost an election. The cutthroat machinations of 1990s Washington, and Clinton's lie about not having sexual relations with that woman, are a breezy Sunday afternoon compared with the present-day D.C. apocalypse. And "Impeachment" makes one pine for those more innocent times, when shock could still be manufactured by an extramarital affair — and a lie under oath.
‘IMPEACHMENT: AMERICAN CRIME STORY’
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Where to watch: Tuesdays on FX.
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