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.
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.
Past installments of this Ryan Murphy-produced franchise took on the O.J. Simpson murder case and the killing spree of Andrew Cunanan. “Impeachment,” credited to head writer Sarah Burgess, focuses less on the White House and more on the women who drove, or were run over by, the scandal. You might say that this avoids the “crime” that the title promises. But it also invites you to ask what the crime was, if any, and who committed it.
The first half falls to the modern TV ailment of setup-itis, spending somber hours skipping around the 1990s to recap familiar points: the sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton by Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford); the investigation by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr (Dan Bakkedahl); the beret; the blue dress. You may struggle to stay interested if you followed the case (i.e., were alive) at the time, or listened to the “Slow Burn” podcast season about it.
The through-line is the experience of Tripp, Lewinsky and, to a lesser extent, Jones, each of whom became famous and vilified. Lewinsky meets Tripp after she’s been exiled from the White House to keep the president from temptation and scandal. Lonely and bereft, she turns to her older colleague as a sounding board.
At times, it’s a delicate treatment of an ambiguous relationship — is Tripp genuinely concerned for Lewinsky, grooming her or both? But too often their conversations, which draw on Tripp’s tapes and other records, feel more like dramatic re-enactments than interactions between real people.
Tripp is a turbulent story engine, resentful, contemptuous of the President and her co-workers, nursing an inflated sense of importance. Paulson strives mightily for sympathy, finding in Tripp’s desire to lash out and write a tell-all the frustration of a professional longing for respect. But she’s working with a story that comes close to caricature, lingering, for instance, on Tripp’s lonely microwaved dinners in front of the tube. (Though props for the prime-time deep cut of having her watch Ted Danson’s “Gulliver’s Travels” mini-series in a 1996 scene.)
Jones gets less screen time, seized as a battering ram by the conservative activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan (a gale-force Judith Light) and exposed to the snickering attention of the media with her charge that Clinton propositioned her for oral sex. Ashford’s human-scale performance runs into a script that often indulges the classist stereotypes (“sweet, dumb as a rock,” in Carpenter-McMillan’s words) it wants to deplore.
The show does some of its best work with the peripheral crew of conservative opportunists who seize on the scandal: the acerbic, cynical Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), the Web 1.0 gossip Matt Drudge (a perfectly cast Billy Eichner) and the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), a dirt-seeking missile.
If nothing else, it’s exciting to be around people who love their work. “Impeachment” is at its sharpest about gossip, how it moves and confers power. The most spoken line may be a variation on, “How did you know that?”
But the series lacks a clarifying focus. This could have been a story, à la last year’s “Mrs. America,” about the birth of the vast right-wing attack machine, or a MeToo-informed reconsideration of Clinton’s behavior.
These ideas are raised but not deepened. (Though there is the nudge-to-the-ribs appearance of a young Brett Kavanaugh at a Starr team meeting saying, “I never like to take no for an answer.”) Opportunities are left on the table, like hiring the formidable Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton but using her as a passing presence (in the first seven episodes of 10), as if simply for the Carmela Soprano echo.
In Episode 6, when Starr’s investigators, accompanied by Tripp, ambush Lewinsky at a mall and question her at an adjoining hotel — a plan sleazily named “Operation Prom Night”—“Impeachment” finds a voice. Suddenly, everything clicks: tone, tension, emotion. The cornered target nearly breaks down over the threat of prison, but also cannily holds her interrogators off, buying time with a trip to Crate and Barrel and a chain restaurant.
It’s like “The Americans” by way of “Mallrats,” with intrigue, farce and a jagged cut of betrayal. It is, dare I say it, entertaining, which is not a sign of disrespect to the subject matter but of engagement with it. (The O.J. Simpson season was deadly serious about race and sexism, but also a wild and swaggering ride.)
By Episode 7, “Impeachment” is back to Clinton — more an impression than a performance by Owen — and its broad-focus book report. But we’ve gotten a glimpse at its most interesting subject. “Impeachment” argues for an idea of Lewinsky both more ordinary and more complex than the punchline of the leering media circus and late-night shows, even if Feldstein leans harder into the character’s melodrama.
But even here someone else has gotten to the subject before and more powerfully — the actual Monica Lewinsky, who serves as a producer and has been reclaiming her story with a sharp, funny public voice. In a 2014 Vanity Fair essay, she wrote, “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.” It’s a worthy point; if only the rest of “Impeachment” were more surprising.