“Impeachment: American Crime Story” plays it straight down the line in dramatizing the backstory that led to President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.
The 10-episode FX series, premiering Sept. 7 at 10 p.m., avoids executive-producer/director Ryan Murphy’s penchant for campy histrionics in focusing its narrative arc on the three women whose cumulative actions culminated in Clinton’s fall from grace: Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Murphy stock player Sarah Paulson) and Paula Jones (“B Positive” star Annaleigh Ashford). They each deliver terrific performances in an absorbing take on a scandal that closed out the decade on a sour note.
(Clinton was impeached in December 1998 by the House of Representatives on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice and remained in office for the two years remaining on his second term).
The series starts in January 1998 with the lawsuit brought against Clinton by Paula Jones, who alleges that, in 1991, when he was governor of Arkansas, he exposed himself to her in a hotel room. It then quickly flashes back to 1993. Both Clintons, Bill and Hillary, are engulfed in the growing Whitewater controversy, leading to the suicide, whether directly or indirectly, of their good friend, Deputy White House Counsel Vince Foster. His staffer, Linda Tripp, who’s been working in the White House since the late ’80s, is the last person to speak to Foster before his death. Shortly thereafter, much to her consternation (and sense of self-importance — a recurring theme), she’s turfed to a desk job at the Pentagon and ostensibly replaced by Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser), the pencil-pushing wife of a big Clinton donor who tells Tripp that the president kissed her.
It’s at the Pentagon, three years later, that Linda meets Monica Lewinsky, a White House intern who’s also been transferred to the Pentagon for murky reasons and, slowly, starts dropping hints that her secret “boyfriend” is a really important guy in the White House. Eventually, we’ll meet Bill (a nearly unrecognizable Clive Owen) and Hillary (Edie Falco) and several of the other players in the saga, including book editor Lucianne Goldberg (the reliable Margo Martindale) and Paula Jones’ advisor Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light, who’s very good).
There’s more, of course, and it’s all here: Kenneth Starr (Dan Bakkedahl); Monica wearing the beret and hugging Clinton after his 1996 re-election (a moment caught by C-SPAN cameras); her secret trysts with Bill (nothing graphic, thank goodness); and so on. Those who might not be aware of how it all played out, or can’t keep the characters straight (there are a lot of moving parts), can rest assured; while “Impeachment” bounces back and forth in time, it does sew all the disparate threads together into a cohesive narrative quilt.
Keep in mind that Lewinsky is one of the producers of the series which, depending on your point of view, colors the way in which Feldstein portrays her real-life alter-ego. Lewinsky comes off as a lovestruck, stars-in-her-eyes, lonely, impressionable young woman (she was 22 when her affair with Clinton began) who waits by the phone each night (he rarely calls, but she’s ecstatic when he does) and has a photographic memory for the sporadic dates and times they meet, which will come into play down the road.
She’s a sad-sack who, in Tripp, finds an older, wiser friend in whom she eventually confides her White House secrets (“I’m in love with him,” she tells her). Tripp, out for political blood after a falling out with Willey, and feeling disrespected (by the whole world, it seems), has been in touch with Goldberg about writing a bombshell book about what she’s seen inside the White House. The “Impeachment” writers and Paulson color Tripp with enough subtle shading and substance so she doesn’t come across as a one-dimensional cardboard cutout, but as a person who feels wronged by just about everyone — an inveterate name-dropper who needs to feel important.
Ashford shines as the naive Paula Jones who, initially, wants nothing more from Clinton than an apology and a role for her actor-husband Steve on the CBS sitcom “Designing Women,” created by Bill’s friend Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. That changes once the cynical Carpenter-McMillan enters her orbit (she describes Jones as “dumb as a rock”); she’s given a makeover (including braces) for the impending legal battle with Clinton’s lawyers and hardens her resolve as the media’s coverage of her intensifies.
British-born Clive Owen is passable as Clinton vis a vis his makeup (and he’s too thin) but he gets the raspy voice down-pat. As portrayed here, Clinton is by turns charismatic, angry and a predator, who dangles Lewinsky along (she’s 27 years younger), not calling for weeks at a time before inviting her to his inner office for a “Diet Coke” and their liaisons — then casting her aside when Jones, Willey, et al. turn the heat up and the whole sordid saga comes to light (the blue dress, the Starr Report, etc.)
“Impeachment: American Crime” is a highly watchable series that hews closely to the tawdry affair.