During the current season of FX’s American Crime Story: Impeachment, we’ll have our resident political science professor, Matthew DeSantis, recapping the episodes and providing analysis of the real-life Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Come back every Wednesday for new recaps.
I was a freshman political science major during Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial, and as was the case with most people my age, his presidency was the first one I had been fully aware of throughout his administration. Therefore, when I heard that the Clinton scandals would be the focus of FX’s American Crime Story I was filled with nostalgia since the politics of the 1990s seemed so innocent compared to the full-contact blood sport taking place in Washington today. However, having the scandals and inside politics played back for me in the outstanding first episode of American Crime Story: Impeachment made me realize that perhaps I had been looking into the past with rose-tinted glasses.
During the first episode, the show seamlessly shifts between three distinct timelines: 1993, 1996, and 1998. We begin in 1998 and follow the rather oblivious Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) to the Pentagon City Mall, a location I frequented regularly when I interned in DC, as she gets ambushed by Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) and the FBI. Throughout it all, Ms. Lewinsky is our POV and after a disorienting trip up to the FBI’s temporary headquarters where she finally realizes that Ms. Tripp has sold her out, we slip back to the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993 and suddenly Ms. Tripp is our guide around the early Clinton White House.
The decision to ground most of the episode in 1993 around the time of Vince Foster’s suicide and Paula Jones’s accusation was a wise one because it reminds us that the Clinton presidency was bogged down with scandals from the beginning and right-wing conservatives like Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) had been looking to entrap Clinton in lies for years. While Bill Clinton (Clive Owen) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (Edie Falco) are barely on-screen during the first episode, the writers do a great job at infusing the West Wing chatter with gossip and murmurs about Bill’s penchant for women and Hillary’s unusual role in the early years of the administration. Throughout it all, Paulson’s portrayal of Tripp is savage, sad, cringe-worthy, and glorious. Showing Tripp’s inflated sense of self, which is a stereotypical and very real trait of people working within the halls of power in DC, hits all the right notes, but it’s the little flourishes like her sneaking M&M’s while getting her boss lunch and eating microwaveable dinners while caring for two kids that makes her a full-bodied character. The 1993 timeline closes out after Tripp gets “promoted” to a desk at the Pentagon after being passed over by every other office in the White House following a shake-up of the counsel office in the aftermath of the Foster suicide and Whitewater scandal.
Fast forward to 1996 and Tripp desperately wants to get back at the people who pushed her out of the White House, and she thinks a book exposing the secrets about her time working with Vince Foster is the way to go, but her publisher (Margo Martindale) tells her that it’s a non-starter unless she can get current inside information. Enter Lewinsky who fatefully is assigned to the same Pentagon office as Tripp after being exiled from the White House. Lewinsky’s naivete is so easily taken advantage of by Tripp that within a few interactions she figures out that Lewinsky had been sent to “Siberia” to get her away from the President, who makes an appearance in the final scene of the episode when he calls Monica and asks her about her first day at the Pentagon.
- I didn’t mention Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) but I hope we get more of her in the 1993 timeline. While there are elements of her performance that are played for comic relief the writers and director are also delicate enough that you immediately feel bad for someone who is clearly being used as a pawn in a game of chess she doesn’t even know is being played.
- Aaron Sorkin popularized the “walk and talk” as a feature in The West Wing in which characters would blab huge chunks of expository dialogue while weaving their way through the hallways in the White House. I never cared for that style, and I find the dialogue and direction in ACS: Impeachment to be much more realistic. People steal a private moment here and there to gossip and quickly scurry away when someone with authority walks nearby.
- I’m excited that Matt Drudge (Bill Eichner) is going to make an appearance in future episodes. The Lewinsky scandal and impeachment made Matt Drudge and turned him into one of the most important figures in conservative media for nearly two decades. I admit to refreshing his website, The Drudge Report, every few minutes in the late-90s to get the latest scoop and gossip surrounding the Clinton scandals. And to be honest, I still do.
- Finally, I can’t wait to get Bill and Hillary in future episodes. I’ve long been a Clive Owen fan and while his Arkansas accent isn’t pitch-perfect, imitating Clinton is more about capturing his charisma (see Phil Hartman on SNL). Meanwhile, does anyone play a jilted wife better than Edie Falco? Her years playing Tony Soprano’s wife Carmela on HBO’s groundbreaking show The Soprano’s perfectly positions her to step into the role of a woman whose powerful husband’s bad behavior keeps getting in the way.