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. 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.
With Impeachment — debuting Tuesday, Sept. 7 at 10/9c on FX; I’ve seen seven of the ten episodes — executive producer Ryan Murphy and showrunner Sarah Burgess aim to bring the same scrutiny that ACS brought to the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of Gianni Versace, this time to the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair and the very public fallout that led to Clinton’s historic impeachment. It is rich subject matter, to be sure, with plenty of juicy material to work with. But Impeachment badly fumbles it with a muddled narrative that gets overextended in all directions, along with an unseemly tabloid edge. (The decision to dramatize Vince Foster’s suicide with an America’s Most Wanted-style reenactment in the very first episode sets an ugly, exploitative tone.)
Impeachment also falls victim to 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 Burgess in the credits — she wrote four of the first six episodes — but his fingerprints here are unmistakable.
The central figure here — you’d hardly call her a “hero” — is Linda Tripp (played by Murphy staple Sarah Paulson), an embittered government bureaucrat who bristles at a demotion and strikes up a creepy bond with new coworker Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), preying on her like a spider with a fly. Monica feels jilted when Bill Clinton doesn’t bring her back to work at the White House after his reelection, so she spills all to Linda about her clandestine affair with the President. Linda sees Monica as her ticket out of her gray government cubicle and starts taping their phone conversations, setting in motion a scandal that shocked the country and nearly ended Clinton’s presidency. Impeachment gets too caught up in the build-up, though, and spends too much time trying to wring drama and tension out of banal conversation. Only when the affair becomes public in Episode 7 does the series finally start to show faint signs of life.
The casting is a big misfire, too: Murphy’s productions never fail to attract big-name talent, but rarely have the casting choices been this ill-fitting — or this distracting. Paulson is unrecognizable here, slathered in prosthetics, and she’s playing one of the most unlikable TV characters in recent memory. Lumbering around like an ogre, Impeachment‘s version of Linda Tripp is a vindictive gossip, a Puritanical scold and an obnoxious ladder-climber who grates on everyone around her. She nurses a special grudge against the Clintons, but she seems to hate everyone equally… and the feeling is largely mutual. It’s not a bad performance, exactly, but it’s a deeply unpleasant one, and Paulson’s facial expressions barely register beneath all the makeup. It’s hard to empathize with her, or even endure her company for very long.
The real Monica Lewinsky is a producer on Impeachment, but it’s hardly a flattering portrait of her, either. Feldstein plays her like the dizzy heroine of a rom-com: a squeaky-voiced, lovestruck gal who can’t stop obsessing over her man. (Feldstein doesn’t look much like Monica, either.) The scenes with her and Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton are admittedly compelling, in a seedy romance novel kind of way, and Owen does a decent job of capturing Bill’s aw-shucks charm. But ultimately, the scenes seem ripped from a Lifetime movie, and they’re a bit too easy on old Bill, too, letting him claim to be an innocent victim of conservative persecution. As for his wife Hillary, Edie Falco doesn’t speak a single word as her in the first six episodes, just serving as a smiling face in the background. (Oddly, amid all the other prosthetics, they didn’t even attempt to make her look like Hillary at all.)
I should note that there are a few interesting glimmers here, around the edges. I’d gladly watch the full origin story of Matt Drudge, played here by Billy Eichner as a CBS gift shop cashier turned Internet sleuth, digging through dumpsters for scoop to post online. And despite being saddled with a ridiculous fake nose, Annaleigh Ashford turns in Impeachment‘s best performance as Clinton accuser Paula Jones, finding humanity and sympathy in a much-maligned public figure, a la The People v. O.J. Simpson‘s Marcia Clark. But Impeachment wants to have it both ways: We’re supposed to feel bad when the media treats Jones like a joke in one scene, and then laugh at how dumb she is in the next. (Casting Taran Killam as Paula’s volatile husband was also a mistake: His presence makes their scenes play like a SNL digital short.) It’s this clumsy blend of didactic “weren’t we awful back then?” hindsight and sleazy sensationalism that ultimately makes Impeachment one of the year’s biggest TV disappointments.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: FX’s American Crime Story franchise plummets with Impeachment, a trashy, exploitative trainwreck that borders on parody.