‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ Pulls the Curtain on the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal

Impeachment” digs into all of the muck and human farce of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, finding all the necessary ingredients for lurid melodrama. This is the latest entry in “American Crime Story,” the anthology series helmed by producer Ryan Murphy that has reframed tales of corruption, trembling psyches and base impulses from the TV-obsessed 1990s. Murphy was almost born to dramatize this material, because as the last four years have demonstrated, politics and mad showmanship are now kindred spirits in America. The brilliance of his approach is that every story covered connects to how we got to where we are today, in obvious and subtle ways. The Lewinsky affair somehow swirls together our ongoing culture wars and media obsessions. If JFK was linked to movie stars, soldiers of fortune and dashed dreams, the Clinton White House leads us to disgruntled, lonely office workers, bitter backwoods encounters, zealous right-wingers and sex-obsessed tabloids.

It all begins with a phone call in January 1998, as Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) is called by friend Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) to meet at a Pentagon City food court. Waiting to scoop her up with Tripp are FBI agents who take her to meet with men connected to the special counsel headed by Ken Starr. Most viewers know where this is headed, but before that the show goes back to the beginning, in 1993, when Tripp was living on the inflated ego of working for White House counsel Bernie Nussbaum (Kevin Pollack). There is tension in the West Wing over Whitewater, the real estate scandal implicating President Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and First Lady Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco). White House counsel Vince Foster is feeling the pressure from another scandal involving the WH Travel Office and the misuse of funds. After Tripp tries to cheer him up with lunch, Foster leaves and commits suicide. A shakeup in the office results in Nussbaum resigning and Tripp being transferred to the Pentagon, against her will, and she sits in misery, wishing someone would take her seriously as an insider. Then, in 1996, Lewinsky arrives as a former White House intern given a rather cushy job for a 23-year-old at the Pentagon. With expert snooping, it dawns on Tripp that Lewinsky is hiding something from her time near the already notorious Bill Clinton. Hints of what’s to come land when Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford), publicly accuses Clinton of sexual harassment.

Like the previous two entries in the series, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” and “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” there’s not much mystery left to the central case. All the key players are famous and the crime or misdeed is solved, with the possible exception of Simpson and his remaining loyalists.  Although, read no further if somehow you’re the rare individual unaware President Clinton had sex with Lewinsky, lied about it on national television, then admitted to it, but underwent a whole impeachment process spearheaded by a Republican Party truly entering its current, extremist-conservative metamorphosis. Murphy and his writing/directing team are fascinated by the personalities involved and the times they lived in. “Impeachment” is another breath of deep nostalgia, opening with introductions of Lewinsky and Tripp immersed in beepers, music of the times and those ancient artifacts known as print magazines and newspapers. Murphy directs the premiere and loves to linger on small details like late ‘90s computers, Tripp drinking SlimFast and the opulent snacks of the White House. Yet all is shadowy, because the halls of power are always hiding secrets and obscene truths.

The characters are vividly sketched, with the hyped sense of melodrama but clear psychological makeup. Officially, the show is based on a book covering the whole story, “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President,” by Jeffrey Toobin, who himself was recently involved in one of the pandemic’s oddest sexual scandals involving Zoom masturbation during a staff meeting. Lewinsky is also credited as a producer. That might explain why Tripp really gets sketched like the nosey ego who eventually betrays her friend. Brilliantly played by Murphy regular Sarah Paulson, Tripp is the wounded ego that demands attention and a sense of status within her world. She loves to be around the well-connected and then use it. Early in the pilot she befriends a White House volunteer aide, Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser), who confides in Tripp that Clinton kissed her in the Oval Office. Later Tripp will be devastated when Willey practically gets her job during an office shuffle that sends her to the Pentagon. Even there, she can’t believe a cubicle awaits, and blatantly tells her new boss she knows a lot about Whitewater, so it’s best to give her an office since she might need it in case she’s questioned. 

Surrounding Tripp are a gallery of characters so colorful, they must be accurate, like literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), who brags about publishing scandalous bestsellers like Kitty Kelley, in a sense becoming the siren tempting Tripp to find something juicy she can sell. The narrative also balances Tripp’s journey with that of Paula Jones, written as a naïve bystander to a gathering storm, who accuses Clinton of exposing himself to her and asking for oral sex in a Little Rock, Arkansas hotel when he was governor. All she wants is an apology, but when emerging right-wing flamethrower Anne Coulter and her collaborators help get her shark lawyers, Jones is thrust into a world of conservative gatherings like CPAC, where eerie Clinton masks and misogynist t-shirts attacking Hillary Clinton greet her. An ensuing news conference is a sexist inquisition of reporters desperate for lurid details. None of this is fun for Jones’s husband, Steve (Taran Killam), a wannabe actor who tries to include a role on a TV show when talking with lawyers over what to demand from Clinton. 

Clinton himself remains a distant shadow in the premiere, as well as Hillary, who we first see in an icy scene with Tripp in a bathroom, where the imbalance in power is made all too clear. Clive Owen as the deceptively friendly, charismatic president truly appears at the end of the premiere, calling Lewinsky to ask if she’s enjoyed her first day at work in the Pentagon. Owen has the clear look of the smooth talker meets southern gentleman meets compulsive womanizer. As we all know, the real focus of this saga will become Monica Lewinsky. Beanie Feldstein brings the right amount of naïve youth tinged with some experience to the role. She’s smart but also in a phase of life where one is too willing to be nice to everyone and make friends. We sense she almost can’t help herself while having lunch with Tripp and hinting she was moved out of the White House for very specific reasons, like someone hiding something they know is explosive. So begins this latest excursion into the recent American past, with the kind of enthralling, entertaining energy Murphy brings to his obsession with true stories. “Impeachment” already stands out for how it isn’t dealing with a murder, but with multiple acts of deception, betrayal, abuses of power and emotions. Clinton and Lewinsky are not let off the hook, or Tripp and the raging conservatives who tried to take advantage of it all. Murphy has a keen understanding of how this story is important. Many of its players would and continue to cast a shadow over our system for a long time.

Impeachment: American Crime Story” premieres Sept. 7 and airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.