“Impeachment: American Crime Story” is empty. 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.
Despite Lewinsky serving as a producer (and positioned front-and-center in the PR campaign), “Impeachment: American Crime Story” isn’t really about her. Its lead is Linda Tripp, as portrayed by executive producer and director Ryan Murphy’s go-to star, Sarah Paulson. First shown from behind — her shoulders raised, blonde hair bouncing out of the shadows — Tripp is formally introduced as a “treacherous bitch,” and the character soon lives down to her moniker. (Much will be said about “Impeachment,” but it sure isn’t shy to speak ill of the dead.) In a season stocked with clout chasers, Tripp is a former White House secretary furious over her removal and desperate to be recognized as a person of prominence. She repeatedly boasts of her time working in government, touting her “top-secret” clearance even when those listening not only know what she’s referring to, but know more than she does in general.
One of the few fooled by Tripp’s boastful ways is a 23-year-old ex-White House intern who’s been transferred to work a few desks away. Monica (an effusive Beanie Feldstein) is also eager to get back to the West Wing, and the two strike up a friendship built on a shared desire to escape the Pentagon’s shrouded drudgery. But while Tripp craves the vicarious thrills of inhabiting a place of power, Monica is in the clutches of the person sitting in its throne. Her first phone call (of many) with President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) isn’t made until the end of the first episode, shortly after Tripp starts suspecting their affair. Soon, the details start spilling out, as the frustrated co-workers form bonds both genuine and manipulated.
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While Annaleigh Ashford gives “Impeachment’s” most lived-in performance as Paula Jones, Owen is a fascinating pick for Clinton. Embedded in the public consciousness as a British charmer — so much so that he spoofed James Bond rumors by playing “006” in the “Pink Panther” reboot before extending the gag throughout an entire feature film in “Shoot ‘Em Up” — it takes more than a few minutes to adjust to the actor channeling that same energy into a breathy Arkansas drawl and gentle office shuffle. “It gets a little lonesome some days,” he says to Monica on their second meeting. “I’m in the office here on the weekends when there’s less staff. If you want, you can come see me.” Between the casual “uh’s” and his relaxed requests, these early encounters showcase the calm confidence power can provide; whether you see it as charisma or sleaze, Clinton’s “aw shucks” Southern disposition wraps itself around Monica like sticky molasses.
Soon, she’s stuck, waiting by the phone for the most unavailable man in the world to give her a call. But where Owen’s performance goes slightly awry isn’t in Clinton’s predatory courtship; it’s in the shift between his self-assured sweet-talking and the fiery, aggrieved monster who emerges when threatened. Steely and sharp, when he meets with advisers about the cover-up, Clinton starts to feel more like a character imbued with Owen’s star power than the president the world met on TV; that’s not to say Clinton couldn’t have a dark side, but that “American Crime Story” seems to prefer an obvious turn into unmistakable evil than the more casual cloaks liars use so convincingly. (Hillary, played by Edie Falco, is glimpsed briefly in the first episode and then barely present until Episode 7.)
Similar blunt choices plague “Impeachment.” Certain castings are too attention-seeking to carry any weight (like Taran Killam as Paula Jones’ blustery husband Steve, or Billy Eichner playing reporter-dress-up as Matt Drudge). Too many lines are either gross meta jokes (like Brett Kavanaugh’s first remark, “I never like to take no for an answer”) or brazen reminders that Bill Clinton’s scandal opened the door for Donald Trump’s presidency — which, to be fair, could contribute to the series’ historical reframing, except the argument is as thin as the allusions are heavy-handed. “Being the president used to mean something — even Nixon was capable of shame,” Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) says (yes, Ann Coulter). “But after this, just think: What kind of flabby con man will see a path to the White House?” Later, after rattling off a list of female cabinet officers, Clinton tells his chief counsel, “No one supports women more than me.”
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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.”
Among the many, many, many close-ups of various actors made to look like historical figures — like the camera itself can’t believe that’s really Sarah Paulson under there — “Impeachment: American Crime Story” can feel claustrophobic. From the incalculable scenes conducted entirely over the phone to the isolated positions Linda and Monica take in dozens of framings, one could kindly argue the series is building a bubble around its secretive subjects, to heighten its inevitable burst into more of an explosion. But even by Episode 7 (the last provided for critics out of the 10-part season), when the rumor is out, the media is swarming, and the lawyers are gathering, everything still feels remote. Considering “Impeachment” was shot over the last year, working through pandemic production restrictions, some lingering austerity can be expected.
Yet the staged recreations, showy casting, and lack of insight make this season feel like a tardy version of “Saturday Night Live” — all too content to retread the headlines without digging for substance. Post-#MeToo, Monica Lewinsky’s story will always have relevance; even before the rise of accountability, people have known how poorly she was treated then (in public and private), as well as how far the national conversation drifted from public interests. But what’s meaningful within “Impeachment: American Crime Story” — based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1999 book “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President” — comes from the truth, not the way it’s told here. Season 3 isn’t serving as much more than a reminder that these events happened, and those involved would likely be seen differently today.
Well, except Linda Tripp. The series sporadically feigns complexity toward the oft-derided bad friend: Was she a bullied child who grew up to become a bully herself? Was she a patriot, as she claimed? Was she trying to protect a vulnerable woman from a known predator? But through seven episodes, the series’ predominant conclusion is also the all-too-obvious one, summed up by the first quote in her obituary and from Monica Lewinsky herself: “I hate Linda Tripp.” How little things have changed, it seems.
“Impeachment: American Crime Story” premieres Tuesday, September 7 at 10 p.m. ET on FX. Episodes will be available to stream the next day via FX on Hulu.