In watching the screeners for Impeachment: American Crime Story, the latest iteration of the shiny, star-studded, and Ryan Murphy-executive produced FX anthology series, I kept thinking about Election—both the 1998 Tom Perrotta darkly comedic novel and its much more famous Alexander Payne-directed 1999 film adaptation.
Both Election and Impeachment have their roots in stories ostensibly about Bill Clinton. The 1992 U.S. presidential election served as the inspiration for Perrotta’s work about the increasingly ludicrous hijinks surrounding a high school student council election; Impeachment is writer and executive producer Sarah Burgess’ retelling of the build-up to, and results from, the politician’s 1998 presidential impeachment hearing. In both works, the outlandishness of the situation and its characters make you lose sight of the point that the most obnoxious person and the one you hate the most—either Reese Witherspoon’s career-defining role as overachieving Clinton stand-in Tracy Flick, herself a survivor of what we would now call sexual abuse, or Sarah Paulson’s heavily prosthetically enhanced portrayal of Linda Tripp—is also the one who is right about a lot of things.
Flashing through various times and locations, Impeachment is meant to tell the stories of Paula Jones (as depicted by Annaleigh Ashford) and Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), two of the women whose own voices were lost in the media circus surrounding Clinton’s history of using sex, and sexual harassment, as power. Like predecessors The People v. O.J. Simpson and Versace did, respectively, with American culture’s perceptions of—and biases on—race and queerness, this is meant to look at our historical addiction to gossip, media misinformation, and sex scandal.
And so, we are meant to see the parallels between the stories of these two women. One claimed then-Arkansas governor Clinton made unwanted sexual advances toward her and was then used as a pawn by his enemies. The other admittedly had an affair with a man much her senior, both in age and station, and was then used as a pawn by everyone. In fact, at least in the first six episodes, Edie Falco’s portrayal of Hillary Clinton is little more than window dressing, and Clive Owen’s prosthesis-heavy depiction of Bill Clinton shows him to be nothing like the charismatic leader with the buttery Southern voice that the public knows.
But what we do get is something not that different from what actually happened during the impeachment scandal of 1998: a sometimes deliciously sordid tale of abuse and manipulation.
Admittedly, I may be coming at this with a more vested interest than most. I am the same age as Chelsea Clinton and I grew up in Little Rock with the children of politicos who were either directly or indirectly impacted by the Whitewater scandal that pre-dated the Jones lawsuit. I’ve heard my share of jokes about the Clintons; during an interview with the now-departed and notoriously salty Ed Asner, he asked me “Oh you’re from Arkansas? Did Bill Clinton fuck ‘ya?” And I am guilty of going as Monica for Halloween in 1998. While a lot of the pushback over People v. O.J. was that it felt too recent to tackle, I can attest just how much the media and its depiction of this scandal has shifted in my own lifetime.
In Impeachment, it’s not as much by Clinton this time as it is by other women claiming to be friends. The duping is also so glaringly obvious, especially given that we are coming at it with the power of hindsight, that it’s akin to screaming “don’t go up the stairs” as you watch the stupid actions of soon-to-be victims in a horror movie.
Judith Light plays Susan Carpenter-McMillan, the well-coiffed and formidable Republican activist who ingratiates herself into Jones’ camp, giving the inexperienced former hotel receptionist some media training and a makeover before setting her loose in a room full of Clinton’s lawyers. We didn’t need the scene of her telling a Nordstrom sales employee how dumb she thinks Jones is to know that she may not have her protégé’s best interests at heart. This is even more heartbreaking when taking into account that the real Susan is herself a sexual abuse survivor.
For Linda Tripp, things are more complicated. She taped phone conversations and set up incriminating meetings with Monica Lewinksy, an impressionable younger woman who believed her to be a friend. “We’re gonna have tapes and thank god we will, too. Because the jury will fucking hate that lady,” Colin Hanks’ prosecuter Mike Emmick says to a colleague just before they bring Monica in for questioning.
But in Paulson’s portrayal of her, the audience is supposed to see her side of the story. At least according to Impeachment, Linda was a divorcée with two teenage kids who thought that she never got the respect she deserved—and that everyone was scheming to shut her up or jump ahead of her in line. The secretary to Clinton’s deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, she took it as an insult that she was transferred to the Pentagon after his death. At nights with her sad calorie-counted TV dinners, or at the office when she becomes convinced that her cubicle mate’s sweating Snapple bottle is a passive-aggressive attack at her, Paulson’s Linda seethes in her middle-aged uselessness and hungers for her own chance at stardom—or at least an opportunity to make her enemies suffer.
And that’s when she meets Monica. Wide-eyed and naive while thinking she’s neither of those things, the younger woman almost too easily confides in Linda all of her secrets—including details about her secret POTUS boyfriend—while they also discuss shopping and dieting tips. Suddenly Linda has an ally who will both support her feelings of injustice and whom she can mold and maneuver into doing her bidding. Sometimes she uses hard truths to her advantage, such as telling Monica that she’s not getting the respect she deserves and needs to send a stern email that demands the President of the United States find a job for her at the White House. Other times, she’s there to answer the phone late at night and tell Monica that she can do better.
Impeachment also wants to remind us how much this era shaped the groundwork for the right-wing agenda that led to the rise of Fox News and, arguably, the election of our 45th president. Cobie Smulders dons a long blond wig and does some impressive vocal toning to get us to believe she’s Conservative media pundit Ann Coulter, who in the 1990s was one of the people working behind the scenes to dig up dirt on the then-sitting president. Billy Eichner’s interpretation of upstart journalist Matt Drudge as a wanna-be film noir detective crossed with Walter Winchell is extremely entertaining, while also feeding into the series’ theme of underdogs seizing respect when they’re not immediately given it.
But, if the litmus test for what counts as a potential American Crime Story topic is that it has to be a uniquely American crime, the show fails. Yes, Monica Lewinsky was one of the first people to be shamed by the Internet age and she has written about the PTSD she still battles because of it. But England with its gazillions of tabloids, or Italian director Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which introduced the character who served as the basis for the word paparazzi, might argue that the United States’ media outlets aren’t the only ones culpable in this.
The dialogue, too, is campy, although that is very much keeping with the brand. In an early episode, Monica invites Linda over for some after-work gossip before saying proudly “want to see the dress?” It turns out she’s talking about the gown she plans to wear to one of the 1996 inaugural balls—not the blue Gap dress with the tell-tale stain on it.
Much will also be made of Paulson’s transformation into a woman who, depending on which side of the aisle you’re on, is either lionized or immensely detested. The actress and executive producer on this project gained 30 pounds for the role and underwent roughly three hours of makeup application each day of filming. That also speaks to the fact that, perhaps because some of these peoples’ appearances were seen so much in news coverage and on Saturday Night Live at the time that they have themselves become parodies, all the wigs and bangs and berets worn by these actors just do not land right, and look unfortunately characturish.
That said, what gets lost in all of that pomp and circumstance is that Linda was right when she said that Clinton was abusing Monica.
But then again, so was she.
Impeachment: American Crime Story premieres at 10 p.m., September 7 on FX.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, daughter, and very photogenic cat.
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