There’s a wearily informed unease with which one approaches something as precarious as Impeachment, the latest in Ryan Murphy’s glossy American Crime Story franchise, exhaustive re-enactments of stories best known by the tabloid headlines that accompanied them. The broader, supposedly serious-minded retelling of recent history, on the small and big screen, has quickly turned into SNL skit-level parody, the distracting novelty of seeing a big-name actor do an impression too often overwhelming anything more interestingly exploratory. The notoriously misunderstood or misremembered hows and whys of what really happened are drowned out by prosthetics and outsized mimicry, like you’re headed to the library but end up in the circus. It was one of the many reasons why Vice and Bombshell both failed to ignite for me in recent years, Oscarbait pantomime ineffectively gussied up as something more vital.
With Impeachment, Murphy and his team return to a time that’s served them well: the mid-90s, an era that hits a sweet spot for his older millennial fanbase. It’s where they followed the trial of OJ in the first, and best, season and then the exploits of Gianni Versace’s killer in the slightly less cohesive second. This time, there’s no killer to find or prosecute but rather a strange, messy web of sex, corruption, ambition and misogyny to untangle. We zoom in on the story of how Monica Lewinsky went from White House intern to household name to punchline, an ugly chapter that preceded chapters of similar related ugliness. While the specifics of the story and how it went from illicit affair to public obsession might be well remembered by many Americans of a certain age, for the majority of us, it’s something we recall mostly through moments – the dress, the hug, the “I did not have…” speech. This sprawling 10-episode dramatisation aims at filling in all of the gaps while also weaving a throughline that takes us to where we are now and where we’ve been since the emergence of Trump and a more pronounced US divide.
It’s a hefty task for a narrative series, one that aims to entertain rather than exhaust with information and in the seven episodes made available to critics, it’s one that’s acquitted slickly, if imperfectly, a compulsively watchable drama that avoids certain potholes while speeding straight into others. Ambitious White House intern Monica (Beanie Feldstein) sees her crush on the president, Bill Clinton (Clive Owen), turn into a secret affair but rather than view it directly through her eyes, the series centres her notorious confidante Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), a co-worker aggrieved at the government for not affording her the power and responsibility she believed she was deserved. It’s a smart idea as Tripp is undeniably the most fascinating character in the expanding scandal and in turn, Paulson also gives the most fascinating performance but one that’s already proving to be divisive, a debate that will surely rumble on over the coming weeks.
Paulson herself has already stepped out before the premiere of the first episode to admit regret over wearing a fat suit for the role, an ingeniously forward-thinking PR move, if one that’s arrived a little too soon after production to really seem entirely genuine, given that Paulson herself was also a producer on the show. I’d argue that use of the fat suit is countered by some sensitive writing, characterisation that’s all too aware of the grotesque ways in which the weight of both Tripp and Lewinsky was lampooned at the time (a staggeringly foul SNL skit featuring John Goodman is replayed in a crushing scene late in the series). Tripp is a knotty, frequently enraging figure and a never-better Paulson works hard to not smooth out her jagged edges while avoiding turning her into a one-note villain. It’s a richly deserved reward in the increasingly deranged Murphyverse for the actor, a brief respite from her thankless procession of hokey B-movie roles playing witches or goblins or witch goblins or whatever. It’s so much more intricately developed than the collection of studied tics it could have been and as we step out to see the bigger picture, a fuller tragic view of someone who had previously been dismissed as a joke emerges.
It’s a deftly handled study of a difficult character that’s more careful and complete than the series itself which is consistently, boldly entertaining but at times a little repetitive and at other times a little structurally messy. There’s often an assumptive quality to the storytelling, at least in the initial episodes, as if we know the full story and so the writers afford themselves some confusing shortcuts while later episodes blend into one another, beats recycled.
Paulson dominates but there are also other fine performances around the edges, including a disarming Annaleigh Ashford as Clinton accuser Paula Jones and a surprisingly note-perfect Cobie Smulders as a vicious Ann Coulter. Their casting sidesteps the aforementioned SNL-ness of watching something like Impeachment, the majority of performers picked as actors rather than stars, disappearing rather than showboating. Owen’s Clinton is initially jarring but he settles into the role with ease while Feldstein is a solid Lewinsky, especially excelling in a grim episode devoted to the horror of her vile treatment at the hands of the media. But their scenes crumble in comparison to those involving Paulson’s Tripp, not bad exactly but just a little beige.
There’s at times a little bit too much for the show to take on, especially one that tends to repeat itself, and it works best when the focus remains tight on Tripp, whose bizarre travails grip even when the show around her slips. The biggest crime of American Crime Story’s third season is ultimately committed by Paulson, stealing every bit of our attention away from Bill and Monica.
Impeachment: American Crime Story begins on FX on 7 September in the US with a UK date to be announced