During FX's press day at the Television Critics Association summer tour this week, attendees learned that Ryan Murphy's shelved take on the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal was once again a go.
It's been a long saga for what will be the third installment of American Crime Story. Back in 2017, following The People v. O.J. Simpson, Murphy optioned Jeffrey Toobin's book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President. At the time, two follow-ups for O.J. were already in the works —The Assassination of Gianni Versace, and an ill-fated look at the Hurricane Katrina disaster. So Clinton–Lewinsky was looking like it would be Season 4.
But Murphy & Co. pumped the brakes, throwing the project's fate into uncertainty when the showrunner ran into a reluctant Lewinsky at a Hollywood party. "I told her, 'Nobody should tell your story but you, and it's kind of gross if they do,'" Murphy recalled in a 2018 interview with The Hollywood Reporter. "'If you want to produce it with me, I would love that. But you should be the producer, and you should make all the goddamn money.'"
Thanks to a change of heart — and the Katrina series being shelved — Lewinsky's story is back in the wings as American Crime Story's third chapter, poised to do for the former White House intern what the O.J. installment did for prosecutor Marcia Clark. It's still early days, but here's everything we know about Impeachment so far:
Impeachment is back in the works only because Lewinsky boarded the project as a producer. "I was hesitant, and truthfully more than a little scared to sign on. But after a lengthy dinner meeting with Ryan, I came to understand even more clearly how dedicated he is to giving a voice to the marginalized in all of his brilliant work," Lewinsky told Vanity Fair. "People have been co-opting and telling my part in this story for decades. In fact, it wasn’t until the past few years that I’ve been able to fully reclaim my narrative." Henrietta Conrad and Jemima Khan (who both worked on the 2018 A&E documentary The Clinton Affair) will also produce.
Playwright Sarah Burgess is behind the adaptation of Toobin's book. Her involvement has already excited many, given the success of her Off-Broadway dramedy Dry Powder, which took aim at the finance world and starred Claire Danes and John Krasinski. Burgess also will executive produce, alongside Murphy and familiar names Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson, Brad Falchuk, Larry Karaszewski, Scott Alexander, Alexis Martin Woodall, and actress Sarah Paulson.
Entertainment sites have been dream-casting Impeachment ever since its initial announcement more than two years ago, with veterans of past Ryan Murphy series at the top of many lists. Connie Britton was a popular guess for Hillary Clinton, Lea Michele for Lewinksy and Courtney B. Vance for Clinton confidant Vernon Jordan. Some of the speculation can finally be put to rest, as three of the stars have now been announced.
Bio: Rising star on stage and screen with leading-lady chops and a flair for comedy — also, Jonah Hill's little sister.
Credits: Broadway audiences who saw Bette Midler's Hello, Dolly! will remember Feldstein as Minnie Fay. Her film and TV credits include Olivia Wilde's recent hit, Booksmart, the scene-stealing BFF in Lady Bird, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (she's the one who took the header out the front of Seth Rogen's car), and as Jenna in FX's What We Do in the Shadows.
Role: Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose affair with President Clinton led to impeachment proceedings.
Bio: Emmy-winning TV veteran who's become a fixture of Ryan Murphy's oeuvre.
Credits: Many consider Paulson the crown jewel of the American Horror Story universe for her iconic turns as Lana Winters and Cordelia Foxx — she's been in every season so far. You also know her from The People v. O.J. Simpson, as Marcia Clark (a portrayal that earned her that Emmy), as well as the Oscar-nominated films 12 Years a Slave and Carol. She made her directorial debut last year with the American Horror Story episode "Return to Murder House," and she's starring in Murphy's first Netflix endeavor, Ratched, about the origins of the antagonist from Ken Kesey's 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Role: Linda Tripp, the co-worker who secretly recorded phone calls with Lewinsky in which she detailed her relations with the president
Bio: Multi-talented actress of stage and screen, already familiar with the American Crime Story universe.
Credits: Ashford most recently played Elizabeth Cote, close friend of Andrew Cunanan, in The Assassination of Gianni Versace. Also on TV, she starred in Showtime's Masters of Sex. On Broadway, she starred in Kinky Boots opposite Pose (and American Horror Story) star Billy Porter. She won a Tony Award for her featured role in the You Can't Take It With You revival in 2015.
Role: Paula Jones, a former Arkansas state clerical worker who sued Clinton for sexual harassment.
A slew of other big-name roles remain open — or their players under wraps — including those for Ken Starr (independent counsel who investigated Clinton), Lucianne Goldberg (the literary agent who advised Tripp to record Lewinsky's calls), and Bill and Hillary Clinton (you know them). We also wouldn't be surprised to see these smaller but still key figures of the era appear:
Let the dream-casting continue.
For Impeachment, Murphy is sticking with the source material optioned in 2017, Toobin's A Vast Conspiracy. Its title comes from comments Hillary Clinton made during an appearance on the Today show in 1998. Speaking to Matt Lauer, the then-First Lady said the sexual misconduct allegations against her husband stemmed from a "vast right-wing conspiracy that has been conspiring against my husband since the day he announced for president." The book choice marks a pattern for the American Crime Story series, as the first two seasons of the anthology were adaptations as well: The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson (another Toobin book) and Maureen Orth's Vulgar Favors: Andrew Cunanan, Gianni Versace, and the Largest Failed Manhunt in U.S. History, respectively.
Written as a non-fiction legal thriller, A Vast Conspiracy was published soon after the Clinton impeachment hearings with nary a flattering portrait of the major players involved. It chronicles how Clinton's 1991 hotel meeting with Paula Jones led to a series of investigations — Lewinsky enters the picture in 1995, when she joins the White House as an intern and begins having intimate relations with the president — ultimately concluding in February 1999, when the Senate voted to acquit Clinton.
It's unclear how much of the book Burgess will cover, but early comments from Landgraf hint that the adaptation will explore "the overlooked dimensions of the women who found themselves caught up in the scandal"—namely, Lewinsky, Tripp, and Jones. "The fact that Monica herself wants to be involved in it, when you’re talking about, obviously, a period of her life that was as traumatic as you can possibly imagine," Landgraf said at TCA, "tells you something about the quality of the material and the vibrancy of the sort of revisionist history that that material can provide now through character."
In other words, the show will narrow its aperture. Yes, Impeachment will probably be part-courtroom drama, part-true crime thriller, as in seasons past. But it won't exhaustively cover everything of the era (think: sweeping events like the Whitewater drama — about the controversial real estate investments of the Clintons and their associates — which we'd guess would be ancillary to the main story). Given what we know about history and how American Crime Story likes to concoct its scenes of suspense, you're more apt to see specific character moments, like the Excelsior Hotel meeting, Lewinsky's White House transfer, "Dump Day," and the Ritz Carlton "sting tape" get the Murphy-Burgess re-enactment treatment from a new perspective.
Production begins in February, and the series bows Sunday, September 27, 2020, at 10 p.m. ET on FX. If that premiere date — roughly five weeks before the 2020 election — raised your eyebrows, you're not alone. Some fans and critics have speculated that the timing could prove nettlesome for Democrats.
"Airing this during the final six weeks of the 2020 election is an abysmal idea" journalist Mark Harris wrote in a tweet. "I'm looking forward to seeing it, and I hope FX reconsiders the timing."
Others, however, think the hand-wringing is an over-reaction. "I find the idea that it will somehow become big Trump fodder at his rallies a little bizarre and baffling," wrote Vox's Emily VanDerWerff. "It is pretty clear from the press release this is going to be centered on stories about women navigating situations involving power, politics, and gender, not on, like, Bill Clinton. I really don’t think this is the kind of show that will get Trump all worked up." The backlash sent Landgraf on the defensive, almost immediately. “People are going to be very interested in this around the presidential election, and it is going to be a great show,” he said at TCA. “I don’t believe it’s going to determine who the next president of the United States is going to be."
Sean Fitz-Gerald is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Thrillist, Vulture, Los Angeles Magazine, The Denver Post, and Variety. Follow him @srkfitzgerald.