AMERICAN CRIME STORY: IMPEACHMENT. Just a few years can make one hell of a difference and 23 years can be like a lifetime — roughly the length of a generation. And from the 1998-1999 scandal-ridden impeachment of President Bill Clinton, it sure feels like a vast gulf from there to the present day.
Airing on FX Tuesday nights through Nov. 9 and streaming on Hulu, American Crime Story: Impeachment is the third go-round from showrunner/guru Ryan Murphy, who has taken a break from his cult audience-earning horror entertainments to follow in the footsteps of previous ACS limited series as 2016's masterful, Emmy-winning series about the trial of O.J. Simpson and 2018's hey-not-bad one about Gianni Versace's murder.
Even if there are among you readers those young enough not to remember what was commonly called "the Lewinsky scandal," among other things, I'll assume you are familiar with the matter that rocked the Clinton presidency for roughly 13 months of his second term. That it was the first presidential impeachment to go to trial in 131 years is of note but, like those before and since, it ended in acquittal. The series, four episodes in so far out of a total of 10, has wisely chosen to focus on the arcs of two women: Monica Lewinsky and Tinda Tripp.
Lewinsky is played by Beanie Feldstein, who disappears perfectly into the role of an early-20s, straight-out-of-college intern who got ground up in a power dynamic. Tripp, played by a nearly unrecognizable Sarah Paulson (excellent as always), is a career civil servant who has worked very, very hard in the upper echelons of D.C. Despite the fact that Tripp is established as a nightmarish white-collar co-worker — one who's upset by everything from misplaced yogurt containers to bad toner cartridges — one initially feels some empathy for her as a middle-aged woman who feels that she simply deserves better in the massive D.C. bureaucracy.
That Tripp will turn out to be possibly the worst and most disingenuous work friend imaginable is another wrinkle, but the early episodes give it all plenty of context. And When Lewinsky becomes a coworker of Tripp's (they meet in late 1996, newly transferred from the White House to office work at the Pentagon), she is young, trusting, hopeful, friendly but also intelligent. Though through very different circumstances from Tripp, there's some similarity in her getting caught up in something beyond her control.
Lewinsky, of course, is dragged into the very public eye thanks to a workplace affair with a charismatic, manipulative, powerful older man, in this case Clinton (played here with unctuous, deft detail by Clive Owen, not letting his roots in Coventry keep him from nailing the Arkansas accent). And thanks to Ken Starr, in what even he and his attorneys would eventually admit was probably (duh) a misstep, the scandal is dragged into the open in salacious detail.
Throughout 1998, Lewinsky was subjected to jokes from late night talk show hosts about her looks and weight, and Tripp found herself played by John Goodman in drag on Saturday Night Live. We like to think we have changed for the better but it wasn't so long ago. Still, some particulars of the case can come out of the foggy past like ephemera from a different era. (Wait, Lewinsky worked at the Pentagon? What exactly did Michael Isikoff do again? Paula Jones' husband was trying to launch his acting career?)
American Crime Story: Impeachment is imperfect but it's close to nailing how the whole 13-month national episode — with plenty of months of rumbling run-ups — reflected the era and built the one we're in now. We get things like Matt Drudge (a perfectly cast Billy Eichner) digging through the dumpster after a shift at his mid-90s job at the CBS Studio Store in Burbank, then going home to glean gossip from crumpled faxes and post online from his dial-up modem. For political junkies, there are trenchant portrayals of young Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Geroge Conway.
Impeachment is sharply on point in its entertainment and facts. While nowhere near the blunt reckoning about race and the legal system as was the previous ACS installment about the Simpson case, it's still enough to make you look back at those 13 months and ask, "What the hell good did that do anyone?" TVMA. 42M. FX, HULU.
David Jervis (he/him) is an Arcata-based freelance writer and editor.
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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.