Each season of FX’s American Crime Story franchise, executive producer Ryan Murphy and his team of collaborators dramatize a true crime that dominated headlines in the ‘90s. It’s renowned for finding fresh, compelling angles that re-evaluate well-known stories while providing juicy parts for ambitious actors.
The first season, The People v. O.J. Simpson, came out in 2016 and is one of the finest pieces of television of the decade, looking back at O.J. Simpson’s murder trial with intelligence and nuance. It won nine Emmys that year, including Outstanding Limited Series. The second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, came out in 2018 and made a convincing case for why the less-analyzed true crime story it depicted – the 1997 murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace by unstable con man Andrew Cunanan – was one of massive social-historical importance. It was powered by a riveting, Emmy-winning performance by Darren Criss, winning Outstanding Limited Series as well.
The latest installment, Impeachment, is the return of the franchise, and it’s the most creatively and thematically ostentatious installment yet, for better or worse. There’s a lot to talk about. Here’s what you need to know about the conversation around the show.
What’s it about?
It’s not about America’s two most recent impeachments, it’s about the one a few years before that, when then-President Bill Clinton got impeached for lying under oath and obstruction of justice, charges related to his extramarital affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
If you were conscious in America in 1998, you remember this story`. But the argument Impeachment makes is that you remember it wrong. Back then, it was a story about a sex scandal. Looking back from the post-Trump, post-Me Too cultural vantage point of 2021, it’s a story about the vindictive conservative movement to delegitimize any Democratic political power that has only gotten worse in the years since, but it’s also about Clinton’s own abuse of power and how badly Monica Lewinsky was mistreated in the court of public opinion.
The story is told from the perspective of three of the women involved. There’s Lewinsky, played by Booksmart’s Beanie Feldstein; there’s Paula Jones (Analeigh Ashford), the unsophisticated Arkansan whose sexual harassment lawsuit against the President led to the exposure of his affair with Lewinsky; and, especially, there’s Linda Tripp, the career civil servant who befriended and secretly recorded Lewinsky and divulged her secrets to Ken Starr. She’s played, with maximum bitterness, by frequent Ryan Murphy collaborator and prior ACS Emmy winner Sarah Paulson.
What’s the backstory?
Impeachment, like The People v. O.J. Simpson, is based on a nonfiction book by Jeffrey Toobin, A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President.
According to The Hollywood Reporter, executive producer Brad Simpson was the one who really pushed for the Clinton impeachment as an American Crime Story, because it perfectly fit the bill: “A national scandal where you think you know everything about it but you actually don’t; a broad, Altman-esque cast of characters where you can do a big tableau; and a crime that America is guilty of, too.” Development began on the project in early 2017.
But by 2018, Ryan Murphy had changed his mind. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he had met Monica Lewinsky and had come to realize that she should be the one to tell her story, and he didn’t want to do it unless she was involved. At the time, she didn’t want to be. But the following year, she changed her mind. Impeachment was back on, with Lewinsky as a producer. Playwright Sarah Burgess was tapped to write, and the show was set to premiere shortly before Election Day 2020, which rubbed some people the wrong way, even though Hillary Clinton wasn’t the candidate and no one had seen the show yet. Then the pandemic rendered that argument moot, as production was postponed until late last year.
Now, Impeachment is here, ready for people to make up their own minds about it.
What are critics saying?
Reviews for Impeachment have been mixed, especially compared to the first two highly praised seasons. The performances are being uniformly praised, but critics have problems with the tone and thematic execution.
Salon’s Melanie McFarland finds that Ryan Murphy’s signature lack of subtlety makes it feel like the salacious tabloid spectacle it’s supposed to be critiquing. “Impeachment presents a case where the screen stars are so overwhelmed by production’s devotion to excess and maximal interpretation of recent history that its key lessons are largely negated,” she writes. It’s only when the show focuses tightly on Lewinsky that it clearly makes its point about abuse of power. The rest of the time, it’s “disjointed” and doesn’t know if it’s “a drama or a dark comedy.”
USA Today’s Kelly Lawler writes that “there are many moments of brilliance” – such as Feldstein’s “outstanding” performance as Lewinsky – “but they are simply not strung together with much finesse. Impeachment ends up as a glossy, well-acted series without much to say.”
Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk is more positive, singling out the “mesmerizing” Sarah Paulson and calling the show “imperfect” but “nonetheless transfixing,” because “It is the founding story of so much of what happens in the next three decades of American life and American politics: the Clinton dynasty, the Me Too movement, the transformation of the Republican Party into the party of conspiracy theories and digital gossip, and the crumbling of the image of the inhuman, untouchable, hagiographic American president.”
No one is saying it’s as good as the first two seasons of American Crime Story.
What are the people it depicts saying?
Monica Lewinsky has talked at length in The New York Times and The Hollywood Reporter about how hard and surreal it was to relive this traumatic period of her life for the purposes of drama, but it was rewarding, even though she’s still very anxious about it.
The Clintons haven’t commented, nor are they likely to. Paula Jones hasn’t said anything publicly, either. Kathleen Willey, one of Clinton’s many accusers, hasn’t tweeted about the show. Right-wing pundit Ann Coulter has been retweeting an Ann Coulter fan account (yes, that’s a thing that exists) that shares things Cobie Smulders has said about playing Coulter in interviews. Linda Tripp died in 2020.
Impeachment: American Crime Story airs Tuesdays at 10/9c on FX.