This is a tale you’ve heard before, but you haven’t heard the whole story.
That could describe any of the three installments of Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story,” an FX anthology series focused on those sensationalized true crimes that have defined the American experience. The first two series focused on the O.J. Simpson trial and spree killer Andrew Cunanan’s murder of Gianni Versace and other gay men. The third season, “Impeachment,” is about another seminal 1990s moment: President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky.
“Impeachment” (Tuesday, 10 EDT/PDT, ★★½ out of four) brings the scandal to light from the perspective of three of the women involved: Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), who secretly recorded her friend Lewinsky discussing the affair; Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), who was suing Clinton for sexual harassment at the time; and Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), the woman ripped apart by tabloids who offers her perspective as an executive producer on the series, marking the first time “ACS” has taken creative input from one of its subjects.
Unfortunately, compared with the first two installments, “Impeachment” is a featherweight, lacking its predecessors’ urgency, gravitas and perspective. The ’90s hair and makeup is there, sure, but the pace is slow going through the first six episodes made available for review (of 10 total), as each installment frustratingly jumps between timelines. It’s a shame, because there are many moments of brilliance, but they are simply not strung together with much finesse. “Impeachment” ends up as a glossy, well-acted series without much to say.
The series goes back in history to begin the story of Clinton’s impeachment: Monica and Linda meet as co-workers at the Pentagon and Paula decides to sue Clinton (Clive Owen). Eventually, the narrative moves to the Oval Office, the Kenneth Starr investigation of Clinton, and Republicans’ efforts to get Clinton out of office.
The first few episodes of the series focus on Tripp at their own peril, putting an odious character – who is at times difficult to even listen to – at the forefront. By the fourth episode, the series gains a bit of momentum and focus, leaning away from Linda and toward Monica.
The cast is populated by strong actors, but given the opportunity, Feldstein is the star. The “Booksmart” actress is phenomenal, especially as the story moves along and she finally gets to do more than react to Owen’s poor Arkansas accent. The sixth episode is a showcase for the actress, as Monica is confronted by the FBI and Starr’s office of the independent counsel.
The world of 1990s Washington, D.C., is filled out by the power players who became part of the controversy, including Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders, with a startlingly accurate impression), Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) and Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco). The writers do an excellent job explaining how the scandal – which started with one woman confiding in a friend – ballooned out of control, thanks to the political and media realities of the era. Some scenes that show the bigger picture at play are the series’ strongest, including snapshots of Paula’s lawyers (and their silent helpers) and the Starr investigators.
But the show errs in relying too much on prosthetics to help its actors embody their real-life counterparts, slapping a large nose on Ashford; many layers of silicone on Owen’s face; and putting Paulson in a bodysuit. (She also gained 30 pounds for the role.) It’s distracting, and on Paulson and Owen particularly, it hinders their acting ability. Much better off are cast members like Smulders, who wears a wig and pitches her voice down to play Coulter, reminding the audience of the conservative personality without trying to clone her.
What made the first two “ACS” seasons so great that they ran way with Emmys and critical acclaim was sharp writing, pitch-perfect acting and meticulous production. “Impeachment” has at least some of those elements (certainly the wigs, and Feldstein’s outstanding performance).
But both forerunners also had something potent to say, and after six episodes, I’m not sure “Impeachment” does. “O.J.” was a blistering retelling of a moment in American history that brought out some of our culture’s worst elements and a reexamination of the racism that enveloped the trial and media coverage. “Versace” was a more intimate story of the horrific effects of institutionalized homophobia, from the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy to the senseless violence of Cunanan’s murders.
“Impeachment” bills itself as a voice for the women of the scandal – Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones – who became tabloid sideshows rather than humans to the American people. But it makes a mistake treating them as equals, because Tripp is not violated in the ways Lewinsky and Jones were. And beyond getting out their stories, the series wastes an opportunity to seek more parallels with the politics of 2021. We’ve gone through two impeachments since Clinton’s, and the act is certainly seen through a different lens more than two decades later.
Murphy set the standard for “ACS” at a high level, and “Impeachment” just fails to meet it. I’m more disappointed than mad. The nugget of a great show is here, it’s just hidden beneath too many layers of silicone makeup.