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FX's Impeachment: American Crime Story is a trashy tabloid TV disaster

  • "TV docudramas always walk a fine line between illumination and exploitation. But American Crime Story‘s first installment, The People v. O.J. Simpson, broke the mold by doing the impossible: It gave us a fresh perspective on a story we thought we already knew so well," says Dave Nemetz. "It had depth, it had nuance, it made us rethink the legacies of infamous media pariahs… and I say all that to emphasize that Impeachment: American Crime Story does none of this. Despite its lofty pedigree, Impeachment is a disaster: a schlocky, overheated melodrama that’s only a degree or two removed from a Saturday Night Live parody. It might as well be a quickie TV movie that aired on Fox in 1998 with a title like Intern Affairs." He adds that Impeachment "falls victim to (Ryan) Murphy’s worst storytelling instincts: shallow characterization, shock value substituting for genuine surprise, and dialogue that tells instead of showing. The characters here say exactly how they feel and what they’re thinking — and loudly. ('Stop worrying about Whitewater!' one White House official yells to another.) The whole project has a gloomy, bad energy to it, feigning gravitas with ponderous cutaways to presidential portraits and justice statues. Murphy takes a backseat to (showrunner Sarah) Burgess in the credits — she wrote four of the first six episodes — but his fingerprints here are unmistakable."

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    • Impeachment finds itself enthralled by Linda Tripp: "Rather than come from solely Lewinsky’s perspective...or create some appeal to false objectivity by giving lots of time to every side of the story, Impeachment dwells on Tripp," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It’s so easy to see her as a villain, the nightmarish witch of the impeachment story, hated by everyone on all sides. The series makes room for that reading, certainly — Impeachment’s Tripp is petty, vindictive, and selfish. She is foolish, too, or at least just smart enough to make some very foolish mistakes. She wants attention, and she can’t muster the self-awareness required to admit how much she wants it. Everything bad in her life was done to her. Everything good was the result of her own herculean unappreciated effort. She is a tough sell as a central character, especially in a story with a young, sympathetic woman just begging to be the show’s primary point of view. But Impeachment...is a better-wrought story than many of Murphy’s most recent titles, and Tripp is a more complicated character than many of the roles Murphy has recently given to Paulson (in American Horror Story, in Ratched, in Feud: Bette and Joan). As portrayed in this series, she is a woman who simply does not fit in. Her longing to do so makes her loathsome, with the sweaty, overworked loudness of someone perpetually trying too hard. It makes her sad — so sad that it’s almost hard to watch as she snaps at a co-worker who puts a yogurt cup on Tripp’s side of the cubicle. But it also gives her a readier insight into all the ways the world is broken. Whatever else ACS’s Tripp might be, she is not wrong about that. Impeachment is this in a nutshell: attentive to Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), gimlet-eyed at Clinton (an unaccountably effective Clive Owen), but fascinated by Tripp, this woman the show cannot bring itself to find sympathy for but whom it also refuses to fully indict. The series is rapt by her role in this famous presidential scandal, and though its depiction of her is flawed, sometimes deeply, its detailed obsession with Tripp is nevertheless so utterly caught up in her that the show manages to leap past all the reasons why it absolutely, unequivocally, should not work. I mean should in a few ways here. Paulson should not have been cast as Tripp for any number of reasons, including the thoughtlessness of padding her out into something approximating Tripp’s towering, broad-shoulder body, especially when it is far too easy to see the show as mocking Tripp, turning her into a caricature. Paulson also should not have been cast as Tripp for the exact same reason she was cast as Tripp: She is the Murphy muse, the face that shows up across his work in all his thorniest roles, and that very familiarity makes it impossible to look at this Tripp and not see Paulson. There are moments when she almost disappears, when the complicated Tripp on the page shows through, full of righteousness and self-absorption and wounds. Too often, though, Paulson’s performance is uncannily like Tripp herself. It is trying so, so hard, in a way that makes you want to recoil. It would be a disaster, except this is also precisely what Impeachment is most interested in: the contempt we have for desperation and for people whose desperation is too painfully evident. So it should not work, except there’s also a resonant tension in there, a friction that reveals even more of the character."
    • It's hard not to think about Jeffrey Toobin's connection to Impeachment: American Crime Story: Ryan Murphy purchased the rights to Toobin's book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal that Nearly Brought Down a President, but Toobin -- who lost his New Yorker job when he exposed his penis in a Zoom meeting last year -- wasn't involved in making the series, not even as a consultant. "But introspection about this turn of events has been absent from the many media profiles that have preceded the show’s premiere, suggesting that Murphy and his collaborators — including executive producers Brad Simpson, Sarah Burgess and cable network FX — would prefer you forget this unfortunate detail," says Nina Metz. "To do otherwise might tank the marketing strategy, which has positioned the show as a reassessment of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky saga as told through the experiences of Lewinsky herself, who is a producer here; she worked closely with the writers as well as Beanie Feldstein, the actress who portrays her. I can’t help dwelling on it, though. Like Bill Clinton, Toobin also had an extramarital affair with a woman in her 20s. He would later father a child with her; we know this because it was reported in 2010, after a family court judge ordered Toobin to pay child support. This was public information when, years later, Murphy would pay money to option A Vast Conspiracy which wasn’t even essential to the making of the show; there’s no shortage of reporting on the lead up to and eventual impeachment of Bill Clinton. Perhaps this all circles back to a reticence among the Hollywood establishment to talk openly about how systems function and become entrenched in ways that deliberately and often unfairly protect and enrich certain people while pillorying or discarding others. That’s one of the stories Impeachment aims to tell. But it is also the origin story of this very project."
    • Impeachment isn't bad, but it is a bit boring: "It does not sensationalize the relationship between Lewinsky and Clinton but rather attempts to frame it simultaneously as an abuse of power and as the eye of a storm stirred up by Conservatives (like Cobie Smulders) to undermine Democrats in power," says Kyle Turner. "But paradoxically, one can tell from the show’s tense music by Mac Quayle, its frosty color palette, and precocious yet utilitarian cinematography by Simon Dennis that the show wants you to engage in its drama. But maybe Impeachment: American Crime Story’s drama really isn’t all that interesting. Scenes are dilated beyond their means, characters deliver exposition, and every shot and sequence announces its purpose. It’s not bad per se, but it is fairly boring, with only a handful of jokes here and there to lighten the mood. It never really sustains the tension of the kind of political drama it may aspire to be; it’s not as skilled as, say, Alan J. Pakula or Sydney Pollack. It hasn’t enough of a sharp, cynical edge wittily puncture power or the grace to adbridge things. It feels like being dragged, somewhat nonlinearly, through the whole scandal day by day, hour by hour, the tedium measured by the slow loading page on the Drudge Report. Besides rehabilitation, Impeachment: American Crime Story, which is based on A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin, appears to be absent of a real perspective, or at least one that isn’t obvious. There’s potential throughout, though, implications of artistic rigor; Annaleigh Ashford is a highlight, her Paula Jones being painfully whipped around as political pawn when she’s sincerely in search of justice, without necessarily having the vocabulary to articulate what that might look like to her. In her quivering lip and uncertain eyes, Ashford gives Jones the humanity of someone who’s being exploited by another limb of society, but finds herself trapped when she was promised liberation. But the show’s wavering commitment to a point of view beneath the surface is at its most frustrating when it focuses on the relationship between Lewinsky and Tripp."
    • Linda Tripp comes out looking bad, but it’s still better than she’s ever looked before: "Like Mrs. America, FX’s recent historical drama about the Equal Rights Amendment and its destroyer Phyllis Schlafly, Impeachment’s central character is a conservative villain, but Mrs. America respected Schlafly even as it critiqued her," says Willa Paskin. "Impeachment is not nearly so deferential to Tripp, who is unpleasant company, an aggrieved, self-aggrandizing sourpuss who immediately clocks Lewinsky as a useful tool. For people who were not fully sentient during the Clinton scandal (a cohort in which I count myself), Impeachment’s treatment of Tripp may seem cruel, putting Paulson in a fat suit and showing her whipping up diet shakes all the time. But attention and good acting are their own kinds of sympathy—as they were in Mrs. America, which was accused of softening Schlafly. With repeated exposure to Tripp, the major beneficiary of the show’s overly long episodes, her sourness starts to seem a little hilarious, like she’s a supporting character in The Office, by way of a horror movie. Her mercilessness, her bluntness, the chip on her shoulder coalesce so that you begin to see what Monica might have seen in her: not only someone probing and (artificially) patient, but, ironically, the kind of friend who would always tell you the truth, even as she starts recording Monica’s every word. Here the show goes even further on Tripp’s behalf, positioning her Judas wiretapping as being animated not only by petty grievances, a corrupt moral calculus, and desperate self-regard, but also an actual point. Impeachment has elected to tackle this hashed-over saga by focusing on the women integral to it, not just Lewinsky and Tripp, but Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) and her consigliere Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light, who has maybe supplanted Paulson as the Ryan Murphy Repertory MVP). Supporting characters do flit in and out. Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) and Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) in particular feel teleported in from a campier, more buoyant show. But the focus is explicitly not on the larger political context, the various -gates and yearslong scandal hunt that built to the Kenneth Starr investigation in the first place. In backgrounding partisan politics and foregrounding Lewinsky’s experience of being strung along by the leader of the free world, at great personal expense, whether she knew it or not, the show makes Tripp an awful friend, a bitter woman, a conservative hack primarily responsible for the world crashing around Lewinsky’s ears, but one who is also granted an inch of ground to stand on. Bill Clinton was far worse than his allies and friends ever wanted to admit. That she chose the most harmful, duplicitous, self-serving way to address this is still true—but if she comes out looking bad, it’s still better than she’s ever looked before."
    • Impeachment: American Crime Story is must-see TV with all the actors nailing their roles: The FX drama "manages to turn the dismal state of our democracy into a must-see limited series, pulling the narrative back to the quaint 1990s, when President Bill Clinton’s (Clive Owen) relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) was presented as a national crisis," says Lorraine Ali. "Executive producer Ryan Murphy’s 10-episode anthology series, which premieres Tuesday, is propelled by the brand of brisk, addictive storytelling, stellar casting and high-end soap appeal that have defined the American Crime Story franchise since its first entry, The People v. O.J. Simpson. It delves into the stories behind the political theater, following the women who were actively involved in — or involuntarily pulled into — the mammoth Republican effort to eject Clinton from the Oval Office. Sarah Paulson does a phenomenal job portraying Linda Tripp, the former White House secretary who exposed the affair between Clinton and Lewinsky. The leak led to his impeachment, fueled the careers of far-right crusaders such as Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), and exposed the beginning of a divided Washington bent on revenge rather than governance. Additional players include Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), whose sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton played a key role in the scandal, and, of course, Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco). Owen and Falco are Bill and Hillary here. They nail it, from his laid-back mannerisms, Arkansas drawl and wandering hands to her awkward dance as an accomplished, ambitious woman struggling to fit the role of demure first lady and scorned wife. Feldstein is equally convincing as the beret-clad Lewinsky. She’s naive but not stupid. She knows Bill has her on booty-call speed dial, but she’s hopelessly infatuated with him — he’s the president! Her fatal mistake is taking Tripp into her confidence."
    • Impeachment: American Crime Story should really be titled The Vilification of Monica Lewinsky: "Because that's what it is really about," says Dominic Patten. "The forgone conclusion of the actual impeachment of Clinton in 1999 is at best an afterthought (he later was acquitted by the Senate). Also, stepping aside for a second of who is the good girl and bad guys here in a story we think we know too well, it is the system under harsh scrutiny. Unfortunately, amidst the lies, lawyers, misogyny and conflicted portrait of Hillary Clinton, that cultural character often slithers away from the story as Impeachment plays 'name that ’90s' trivia. It’s worth noting that it’s not that the franchise has exhausted itself — far from it. There are tons of great true-crime tabloid tales for Murphy and gang to gentrify — and I’m sure they will on FX, Netflix or somewhere else. Yet with the transitional Impeachment, the impetus that fueled 2016’s Emmy-laden The People v. O.J. Simpson certainly has waned. In that vein, Impeachment has much to be lauded for on the page and much to be laughed at on the screen — specifically Clive Owen’s terrible prosthetic transformation into a Bill Clinton best seen on Spitting Image, not premium cable. Here, a great actor was handed a great role and a curb-stomped face full of distractions. Beyond the ghost in the machine that Owen’s frankly odious Clinton is for much of the series, this Impeachment is a toxic buddy miniseries of two very different women shunned and exiled by the White House for daring to assert themselves, albeit for very different reasons."
    • Impeachment takes on too much with too little nuance: "There’s plenty of rich material to mine here, and with the benefit of having Lewinsky onboard as a producer, Impeachment strives to bring nuance to a fraught situation that almost immediately became an international punchline," says Caroline Framke. "And yet, for as much effort as Impeachment puts into recreating the ‘90s and making everyone a dead ringer for their real-life counterparts, watching the show feels like taking a trip to the uncanny valley rather than the recent past. Taking itself too seriously to be camp, but not seriously enough to avoid some of TV’s most obvious traps, the series struggles so hard to juggle every storyline it tackles that the scripts often force characters to be the most obvious versions of themselves. Given the chance to portray people who continue to have outsized influence on politics and the world today, Impeachment rarely resists the opportunity to remind the audience of that fact with lines so clunky they might as well be said through winks aimed directly at the camera. (In one scene, for example, one of Kenneth Starr’s investigators asks his colleague for an opinion, to which a young Brett Kavanaugh replies, 'I never like to take no for an answer, but…') Only a couple actors dig themselves out from underneath the weight of leaden dialogue, overt exposition and, in some cases, extremely distracting prosthetics. Otherwise, Impeachment is an overwrought rehash that’s more off-putting than enlightening as it crams everything it can into its inherently complex narrative."
    • Impeachment not being about Bill Clinton is a counterintuitive choice that also works as a statement of purpose: "We already know Clinton’s version of events, expressed in a memoir and privileged by a misogynist culture that punished Lewinsky while allowing her former boss to move on," says Alison Herman. "American Crime Story sees little need to rehash it, instead demoting a transformed Clive Owen to the lower rungs of the call sheet. This Bill Clinton is emphatically not the star of the show. According to a recent cover story in The Hollywood Reporter, the producers even flirted with keeping him offscreen entirely. Instead, Impeachment makes onetime satellites their own centers of gravity. First and foremost is Lewinsky, credited as a producer and played by Beanie Feldstein in a rare dramatic turn. Feldstein’s theater-kid earnestness is expertly deployed, as is her past playing teenagers in films like Lady Bird and Booksmart; her casting inherently plays up Monica’s youth and naiveté in getting involved with a superior who was, at the time, over twice her age. The specter of the #MeToo movement, which broke midway through Impeachment’s yearslong development process, looms large, especially the show’s emphasis on workplace abuse. Before a 2015 TED Talk began a reclamation of her narrative, Lewinsky was long known as a seductive jezebel type—the president’s partner in crime, even a temptress. Impeachment shows Clinton as the pursuer, a pointed reminder of the power dynamics at play. Feldstein is quite good, a completely credible object of our sympathy. But the show is so protective of—and directly shaped by—Lewinsky that it overcompensates, flipping her from a cartoon villain to a cartoon victim of a patriarchy embodied by G-men in suits. Impeachment is not a piece of journalism, and doesn’t have to adhere to the same code of ethics. But the choice to incorporate Lewinsky’s input (she pushed the writers to include the infamous underwear reveal) while declining to consult any of Impeachment’s other subjects has artistic consequences, not just moral ones. For Monica herself, the effect is flattening. For her frenemy Linda Tripp, it’s more complicated."
    • Impeachment: American Crime Story is so difficult to watch, it's almost impossible to tell if it's actually any good: "Is the urge to turn the TV off so intense because of the show’s tabloid melodrama, or its depiction of male misogyny?" says Ani Bundel. "Ultimately, I found it hard to stop watching — even if was through my fingers." Bundel says Impeachment runs into problems in trying to humanize Linda Tripp. "Unfortunately, this fixation on the rehabilitation of Tripp feels like a weakness, and ultimately undermines the show’s broader point," says Bundel. "Murphy’s penchant for over-the-top dramatization doesn’t help either. While there are some parts that are brilliant — the scenes with Jones that widen the lens, Feldstein’s acting when Monica goes up against Ken Starr — much of it comes off as heavy-handed, especially in the first four episodes. It also still feels uncomfortably recent. The context of what came after is inescapable, and complicated. It is impossible, for example, not to look at Clive Owen and Edie Falco as Bill and Hillary and not think of Hillary’s failure to win the presidency in 2016. (Actually, it’s just hard to look at Owen period, due to the cartoonish prosthetics and his godawful Arkansas accent.) The puritanical politics of the 1990s, and the choices made in that era, still echo today. And Murphy’s dramatization of them tap dances on a raw nerve. It’s not pleasant, nor is it particularly entertaining or informative. If the point is just to make audiences force themselves to relive it, like an emotional snuff flick, then well done. But this is one horror story that is not improved by scream queen dramatics."
    • Despite the use of a fat suit, Sarah Paulson's Linda Tripp feels more authentic than the show's other portrayals: "Paulson is exceptional at conveying Tripp's ire with a permanent grimace, her eyes lighting up in the face of schadenfreude or the prospect of feeling important," says Proma Khosla. "...In Paulson's hands, Tripp's skullduggery imbues known events with diabolical suspense. Despite the fake teeth and questionable fat suit, she feels more authentic than many around her, a kooky cadre of otherwise talented actors stuck in distracting wigs and noses that only add up to the feeling that their scenes belong on Saturday Night Live. Clive Owen's Bill Clinton starts out this way — the first episode ends on an explosive silhouette of his nose — but with added screen time he delivers a satisfying turn as the 42nd President of the United States. Every once in a while, the Murphy-verse can't help rear its garishly-wigged head; through melodramatic editing, heavy-handed dialogue, or scenes that feel so out of place they must be satire (there is simply no way to translate Matt Drudge's fedora obsession in earnest). At one point, Cobie Smulders as Ann Coulter muses about 'what kind of flabby conmen might see a path to the White House after this,' and must be using every ounce of restraint to not look into the camera. There is a Brett Kavanaugh reference in a middle episode that makes my skin crawl just to think of it."
    • You'll leave Impeachment understanding that Monica Lewinsky was a real person rather than a punchline: "It’s this shifting characterization that makes executive producer and head writer Sarah Burgess’ installment so notable," says Kayla Cobb. "Impeachment is not a scathing look at Lewinsky as an adulterer, the cartoon version of this woman the ’90s loved. Nor does Impeachment go completely the other way, transforming Lewinsky into a gleaming example of a 'perfect victim' in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Instead, Season 3 of this anthology series offers us a messier version of this story. This Lewinsky is specifically targeted by a man far older and more powerful than herself, though she happily flirts back. She’s clearly the victim of unfair power dynamics, though she sleeps with a married man with no remorse and asks him to further her career. Her professional and personal life is decimated due to the media attention of this scandal, but before this particular shoe drops, Lewinsky spends next to no time talking about her career aspirations. At the end of the seven episodes that were made available to critics, Monica Lewinsky never feels like a monster or a martyr. She’s just a girl in over her head. Never once does our central heroine perfectly fit the bill for Republicans or Democrats. Rather, this Monica Lewinsky is a million things at once: optimistic, excitable, naive, kind, loyal, a bit self-absorbed, even more crazy in love. If the media climate of the ’90s shaved down the edges that made her human, Impeachment draws them back in with fine detail."'
    • Impeachment refrains from offering a perspective more specific than "Important Prestige Series": "For a star-studded drama about an explosive historical moment, Impeachment feels oddly static," says Angie Han. "The problems begin with the show’s structure. Before cutting to the heart of the scandal, Impeachment spends its first three hourlong episodes (out of seven given to critics for review, and out of 10 total for the season) establishing the political landscape of the era and getting viewers up to speed on all the central players: Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson), Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner). Arguably, this is all important context. Impeachment seems intended as a corrective to the oversimplified framing of the story by pop culture, the media, the political establishment and our own prejudice or ignorance; to pare it down too much would be to undermine the show’s very reason for existing. But Impeachment goes about conveying this information by jumping back and forth across the 1990s and scattering its attention across dozens of thinly written individuals, which keeps those early episodes from building any real sense of momentum. The characters are additionally saddled with dialogue that prioritizes blunt efficiency over personality or insight. The show could wait for viewers to form their own impressions of who Linda Tripp is and what makes her tick, or it could have a supporting character come out and yell at Linda that she likes butting into other people’s business because she has nothing else going on. It could trust viewers to connect the dots between past and present, or it could have Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) declare, 'After this, just think what kind of flabby con men will see a path to the White House!' All the while, Impeachment refrains from offering a perspective more specific than Important Prestige Series, as signaled by its elaborate sets and dramatically lit interiors. From scene to scene, it waffles between a chilly political thriller, a Coens-esque dark comedy (specifically Burn After Reading, which also features a character inspired by Linda Tripp) and, at one point, a film noir parody complete with steam rising from city streets on a dark night, without committing to any particular tone or combination of tones. These episodes — which, again, make up almost a third of the season — don’t inspire emotional investment so much as dutiful note-taking, in hopes that all this laborious setup will amount to something eventually. Thankfully it does, at least to a point. Impeachment finally starts to gain steam around the midpoint of the season, when its scattershot storytelling coalesces around Linda’s betrayal of Monica."
    • Impeachment delves into why women betray other women: "What is more fascinating is the relationship depicted between Lewinsky and Tripp — and by extension Feldstein and Paulson," says Candice Frederick. "Lewinsky has long been faulted for putting her trust in a woman who was neither a peer nor someone she knew very well. But Burgess and her team capture what drew these two women together: a shared desperation and loneliness from being relegated to the same physical space away from the White House. Impeachment shoots the Pentagon almost like a beige-walled prison for Tripp, who was no longer in the company of 'the most special people' who worked at the White House. And she was potentially looking for a way to retaliate against those who siloed her away from the center of power. She found a pathway in Lewinsky, a vulnerable woman also dismissed by men of the same caliber who unknowingly gave her the venom she needed. The series interrogates an important and often under-recognized storyline: how and why women betray other women, especially in the professional space where they so often share a similar fate of being unseen and disregarded."
    • Impeachment's layered makeup is a metaphor for the entire series: "One thing that jumps out at you in the opening hour of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story is how layered it is. And by 'layered,' I refer to the makeup," says James Poniewozik. "The premiere ends with the revelation of what appears to be the animatronic replica of William Jefferson Clinton, though somewhere inside that carapace of cosmetics is, I am told, the human actor Clive Owen. Likewise, as Linda Tripp — the bureaucrat who recorded the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) admitting to a presidential affair — Sarah Paulson gives an acute performance from behind a Halloween costume of prosthetics. The uncanny-valley facial plasterwork, while distracting, is not a reflection on either actor’s skill. But it is a metaphor for the challenge of a series like Impeachment. Is a docudrama’s goal to recreate every detail of its subject with photorealistic precision? Or is it to interpret, to have an angle, to help the audience see a much-told story with new eyes? This is the difference between a drama that expands our view of the past and a star-packed Wikipedia entry. Impeachment, which begins Tuesday, leaves little out. There are few historical bases it does not tag. But despite several striking performances, its perspective and ideas break out only occasionally from underneath the pancaked strata of details."
    • Monica Lewinsky, despite her involvement, is portrayed as an indiscernible figure, a cipher and a foil for whatever the show is attempting to say: "Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) lurks in the shadows like a horror film’s Big Bad—calculating and gaslighting, devoid entirely of his infamous Arkansas charm—while Hillary (Edie Falco), who barely appears in the first seven episodes, seems to be a Rubik’s cube of a character that the writers couldn’t figure out how to crack respectfully, opting to instead largely lay off," says Kevin Fallon. "Then there’s Monica herself, played by Beanie Feldstein, who, for the intimacy of Lewinsky’s involvement, remains the show’s most indiscernible figure, a cipher and a foil for whatever the show is attempting to say in any given episode about the other characters, themes, or us as a nation. There may, however, be another argument that looking at Lewinsky in her totality—a woman whose public persona had been so reductive and incorrect—is jarring to an audience who’s been groomed to think one way about her for so many years. In the series, she’s the young girl suffering from a bad case of puppy love. The innocent target preyed upon. The intelligent rising star. The woman in control of her sexual desire. The tortured other woman. The collateral damage to a powerful man’s disregard. The desperate friend. The double-crossed confidante. The confused FBI hostage. The strong. The smart. The insecure. The heartbroken. The bullied. The vilified. The manipulated. Of course, this is the entire point of the show, to reframe what we know about Lewinsky—as well as Jones and Tripp—by exploring the events leading up to Clinton’s impeachment trial through their experiences: the misogyny and sexism they experienced and how they navigated—and saw their reputations destroyed by—the country’s sexual politics, partisan conflict, and an increasingly invasive media landscape. It ultimately achieves that goal, though it might gain more attention for its trips and falls on the way to the finish line."
    • Ryan Murphy can’t help but showcase all the ’90s props, no matter how distracting and insignificant: “Impeachment: American Crime Story is empty," says Ben Travers. "Season 3 of FX’s anthology series, following 2016’s lauded debut The People vs. O.J. Simpson and 2018’s divisive follow-up The Assassination of Gianni Versace, is stark in its tomb-like depiction of Washington D.C., from the desolate corridors of the White House to a lonely residence at the Watergate. But the series, which dramatizes the investigation into Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky in the lead up to his impeachment, is also obsessed with its own recreation; tawdry character reveals and nostalgia traps overwhelm the exigent reframing of a well-known story, now seen (in part) from the victim’s point of view. Better appreciating America’s past abuses of power — by the president, by the media, by anyone who can benefit from punching down — is a compelling ambition, but Impeachment is far more beguiled by the trappings of history (the hug, the dress, the tapes) than excavating telling angles for today." He adds: "Murphy, who directs the pilot among other episodes, can’t help but showcase all the ’90s props, no matter how distracting and insignificant. One scene is given over to the sounds of a dial-up modem whirring and dinging. Slim-Fast cans sneak into frame before being dumped in a blender. Cassette tapes get their own montage. If these period details were treated as such — enriching background elements that lend clarity to the characters and authenticity to the story, rather than magnified to the point of becoming the story themselves — perhaps Impeachment wouldn’t feel as flimsy. But the show’s visual language is so drab it makes the highlighted objects more memorable than many scenes. Despite his penchant for bold colors and high fashion, Murphy is denied both in the dark, gray government offices that dominate this story. Contrasting sequences of Linda getting lunch make it seem like the director and subject share the same plight: She’s so happy grabbing a box of multi-hued M&Ms from the gleaming White House cafeteria, and so miserable with a near-empty tray at the Pentagon mess hall. The first sequence ends with her skipping the communal spoon in favor of greedily fingering her own handful of candy. The second ends with a 180-degree shot of Tripp, as if Murphy already ran out of character traits to explore and just kind of shrugged: 'I don’t know, that scene was about her single-minded ego, and this scene is just about her.'"
    • 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," says Kelly Lawler. "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."
    • 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," says Whitney Friedlander. "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."
    • Impeachment is the disappointment that the acclaimed The People v. O.J. should've been: "It’s been so long since FX’s American Crime Story debuted (Obama was still president!) that it’s easy to forget how much trepidation surrounded that first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson," says Alan Sepinwall. "The O.J. trial was a circus at the time it unfolded. Producer Ryan Murphy’s track record seemed even more fragile in 2016 than it does now, circa the death rattle of Glee and misfires like Scream Queens. And the casting felt odd in so many places: David Schwimmer as Kim Kardashian’s dad? John Travolta doing TV for the first time in forever? And who was this Sterling K. Brown person who had been cast as Christopher Darden? Yet nearly all of it worked....But with the exception of Beanie Feldstein’s wonderful, deeply sympathetic portrayal of Lewinsky (who was a producer on the season), Impeachment is unfortunately everything one might have feared about The People v. O.J. before it debuted...The larger issue is that Burgess and her collaborators (Murphy directed the premiere) seem content to skim the surface with nearly all of these famous figures. Paulson’s Tripp in particular is a disaster. First, there’s the awkward, fat-shaming spectacle of a slim and beautiful actor waddling around in a padded suit and facial prosthetics to play a character who is presented as palpably uncomfortable with her appearance. (The show also never misses a chance to show us what Linda is snacking on and stress-eating.) But beyond that discomfort, and what it says about her larger desperation for attention and influence, Impeachment has nothing to say about who Linda Tripp was, or what motivated her. She’s a two-dimensional villain — even the periodic moments where she seems to feel guilt over what she’s doing to Monica are too brief to really inform her characterization — and she’s one of the two central figures of a 10-hour story! Too many of the other characters seem barely distinguishable from their SNL parody versions (which are glimpsed in a late episode where Tripp is horrified to see John Goodman playing her). Clive Owen is buried under so much latex, he may as well be the depressed prank-show host from the latest season of I Think You Should Leave. And his accent is all over the place: sometimes a caricatured Clinton voice, at others something as unrecognizable as the Children of Men star’s face. Burgess at least has a clearer and slightly more nuanced take on Clinton than she does on Tripp, framing him as a pathological liar and narcissist who can’t even fathom the harm he’s doing to someone like Lewinsky."
    • Impeachment is a gripping and challenging retelling of a presidential scandal — and our nation's moral failure: "Impeachment deftly avoids 'both sides' equivocations or overtly partisan shading," says Kristen Baldwin. "Nor is it a post-#MeToo hagiography of two notoriously wronged women. The real Monica Lewinsky serves as a producer on Impeachment and consulted on every script, but this is not an exercise in redemption. The most empowering aspect of Impeachment's depiction of Lewinsky may be its determination to show us a twenty-something woman in all her flawed, vulnerable humanity. Feldstein captures the reckless bravado of a young adult both emboldened by and crushed under the weight of an overwhelming infatuation. Her Monica is whiny and self-absorbed, loyal and oversensitive, endlessly devoted and shamelessly exploited."
    • Impeachment's depictions of the women rarely challenge the tabloid caricatures of 1998: "When Susan calls Paula 'dumb as a rock,' there’s nothing in the script to contradict that impression," says Judy Berman. "Impeachment seems to delight in mocking Linda, whose passion for microwave cuisine comes off as almost sexual. The real women behind these characters may well deserve such scrutiny. But it’s a weird political stance for an anthology that, in past seasons, connected the murder of Gianni Versace to a culture of homophobia and teased out all the ways in which race, class, gender and the cult of celebrity intersected with the O.J. Simpson trial. And by reproducing old stereotypes, a story presumably meant to be revisionist slips into redundancy. The only character Impeachment really seems interested in humanizing is Monica, which isn’t so surprising given that Lewinsky, now 48 and an anti-bullying advocate, is one of its executive producers. Casting the bubbly, adorable Feldstein opposite the prosthetically monstrosified Paulson and Owen is like casting a guileless little bunny as the final girl in a creature feature. On screen as in reality, Lewinsky is a relatable protagonist—a moony, insecure post-adolescent whose devastatingly charismatic, terminally unavailable paramour just so happens to be the leader of the free world. What the show doesn’t seem to get is how successful Monica Lewinsky has already been, over the past seven years, in shifting the narrative around Monica Lewinsky from slut-shaming to sympathy. More unfortunate still is the way this emphasis repeats the mistakes of the ’90s media, by portraying the impeachment circus as a melodrama fit for the National Enquirer rather than as, for instance, a vast right-wing conspiracy to torpedo a Democratic presidency—one that laid the groundwork for our country’s current partisan nightmare. No one could blame Lewinsky for viewing her own ordeal as the most salient topic for Impeachment to tackle. The rest of the American Crime Story team should have known better."
    • Costume designer Meredith Markworth-Pollack found herself playing a forensic analyst of sorts in connecting pieces of archival imagery to determine accuracy to the timeline: "Monica has this incredible memory. She could remember the brands and where she bought these pieces," she says of Lewinsky. "I have the notes from her: 'The blue fleece sweatshirt that I wore the night the FBI agents grabbed me at the mall was DKNY.'"
    • Sarah Paulson says she resembles Linda Tripp "more internally" on Impeachment: “I don’t have a nose that looks like Linda’s. There’s plenty about me that doesn’t resemble her. I resemble her more internally probably than — I’ve said publicly before — than I care to admit. But that’s for me and my shrink to figure out,” she says. “And it’s not about betrayal, it’s about all the other things that are motivating the betrayal and on Linda’s side, at least as I’ve come to understand it, for me to play it. So I gained 30 pounds and we didn’t know what that would look like or what it would do to my face or not. And so we were sort of in a waiting game to figure out what that would require. And so once I reached that weight, we determined that we were going to need other things to help complete the process. So I was willing to gain as much weight as I was able to and the rest we had to come up with other ways of solving that.”
    • Paulson studied the way Linda Tripp walked: “I focused a lot on her walk," says Paulson. "There is so much film of Linda walking in and out of her home because when the scandal broke, there was paparazzi camped outside in front of her house,” the actress explained. “She had a very particular type of walk. She had a particular thing that she did with her hands and her eyebrows always going up at the end of sentences. So, I tried to capture that as much as I could. And she has that thing that happens with her mouth that I tried to do as well.”
    • Beanie Feldstein, who was 4 years old when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke in 1998, felt her young age gave her a "blank slate": "I feel like I'm in between the two perspectives that I take note of in our world right now," Feldstein says. "There's the younger generation who only really knows Monica from her incredible TED Talk and all of her anti-shaming, anti-bullying work. Every young person I meet is over the moon talking about Monica. And then there's the older generation who lived through all the misogyny and the way she was portrayed at the time and had a different view of what was happening." 
    • Feldstein recalls saying "maybe I could play Monica Lewinsky" months before Ryan Murphy offered her the role: Feldstein said she had always been interested in the similarities between her and Lewinsky. “I know she also grew up Jewish in L.A., and did theater, and that was kind of my basic understanding of her,” says Feldstein. The actress says that when Murphy -- who originally intended to cast an unknown as Lewinsky -- called her, “I just couldn’t believe my ears. I don’t know enough about manifesting, but I believe that’s kind of how it works. Feldstein didn’t think the offer could get any sweeter, but then Murphy revealed that Sarah Paulson would be playing Linda Tripp to Feldstein’s Lewinsky. “I was like, Well, okay, this is getting ridiculous…. I am literally Paulson’s number one fan.” Feldstein says she was glad Impeachment was more a story about female friendship than one about the affair with Clinton. “This one’s a little different, but it is still a friendship story—the central relationship of the show, I think, is Linda and Monica," she says.
    • Monica Lewinsky would've preferred there be no television series at all, but was glad to be on board as a producer: “It’s much better to be going through this as part of something,” she says, “than to be desperately trying to find out what’s on the show.”
    • Showrunner Sarah Burgess studied the media coverage of Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp and Paula Jones: “To me, the crime is that Monica, Linda and Paula had no control over how they were perceived,” she says. “It was unbelievable, the hate." Burgess adds: "There was no constituency for Monica. There was no one on her side. There was a faint heartbeat of, like, three feminists, somewhere. To watch Beanie play her and walk in her shoes and hopefully put us in a point of view to understand how young she was, I hope that does reorient how people think about her. But do you think it would be any different now?"
    • Burgess was intent on making Linda Tripp more than a "cartoon villain": “She was a background cartoon villain in the story," says Burgess. "The actual truth is that as I researched her more she became deeply fascinating to me and I felt real affection for this person who did a terrible thing. And it doesn’t mean the thing is OK. Linda is such an active character, who in some ways is the author of this story because she’s responsible for making this public, so I felt like I was putting the story in her hands."
    • Burgess initially just wanted to focus on Linda Tripp, says she didn't really use Jeffrey Toobin's book: "For a long time, I went into the story with Linda, to tell the story from her point of view," she says. "I became very obsessed with the texture of her life. This frustrated bureaucrat, and trying to understand, not to render Linda as likeable or someone you root for, but just you know, to understand her. I think, I was just personally obsessed with trying to understand how somebody and why somebody would eventually do the thing that she famously did." Burgess adds: "I didn’t really use Toobin’s book. He doesn’t get into Monica very much at all. I read every other book, obviously, all the grand jury transcripts, the FBI files, Linda Tripp’s tapes, of which Monica does not know she’s being recorded, so you hear the real Monica, being morally complicated when you listen to those tapes, but you hear the real Monica in all sorts of emotional states too."
    • Burgess says Lewinsky had a ton of notes, but didn't request any cuts: “I had written three scripts when I met her,” says Burgess. “So the process did allow me, as a writer, to write from that character in the first place and sort of focus on the storytelling of it and then bring it to her. Then those three, and all the later scripts as well, she would read and go through page by page. It was really interesting, some scenes she would have a lot of thoughts on — of course, focusing the most on scenes where Monica Lewinsky is involved in the scene. And some scenes there were no notes.”
    • Burgess was nervous to meet Lewinsky, and grateful that she opened up about so much: Lewinsky advised her not to hold back in certain scenes, like the infamous thong-flashing: “I was like, ‘We don’t need to put that on TV, everyone already knows about it.’ Then Monica read the script and was like, ‘Everyone knows I did this, I think you need to put this in,’” says Burgess. “She has just been so present and transparent and honest and direct — it meant a lot to me to have her along to share this with us.”

    TOPICS: Impeachment: American Crime Story, Beanie Feldstein, Bill Clinton, Clive Owen, Linda Tripp, Meredith Markworth-Pollack, Monica Lewinsky, Ryan Murphy, Sarah Burgess, Sarah Paulson, Costume Design




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