Why The Impeachment Installment of American Crime Story Is Exactly What The Country Needs To Be Watching
And Why The Media Isn’t Happy About It
Ever since the latest installment of Ryan Murphy’s extraordinary anthology series American Crime Story was announced to deal with Bill Clinton’s impeachment, there’s been a lot of backlash. Not just the predictable one from the political media, but from just about everyone in media and supposedly in the world. They say we’ve just lived through two impeachments in the course of a year and even aside from that, most of them had so many painful memories from Saturday Night Live’s reenactment of everything that happened, why should we go through a fictionalized version? But the thing is that says a lot how the country thinks about politics, sex and our view of not just the Clinton scandals, but of sex and power in general.
This is a complicated issue so it deserves a more detailed introduction. First of all, Ryan Murphy was always planning to do an installment on Clinton’s impeachment. He made that clear as far back as 2016. The difference is it was supposed to be the fourth installment, not the third. (There was going to be a story about the aftermath of Katrina first; it’s unclear if that’s still going to happen.) So this was in the works before the idea of a Trump Presidency was in anyone’s thoughts. Next, because of the pandemic, this installment has been delayed for a long time. It was supposed to air in the spring of 2020, and everything that has happened since then delayed its release for over a year.
But it’s not entirely because of the Trump Presidency and all its scandal that’s causing all this advance uproar. And I think most of it has to do with how the world viewed the Clinton scandals at the time and how Murphy and his group of creative forces clearly view it now. In a sense, all of this is part of larger stories that the writers are trying to tell. The People V. O.J. Simpson wasn’t just about the media circus around the Trial of the Century; it was about how the world views race and celebrity. The Assassination of Gianni Versace showed how the world viewed homosexuality in such in a way in the nineties that Andrew Cunanan could kill multiple gay people before he killed Versace — and local law enforcements reaction was basically to shrug. This message was clear in both series, but I think a lot of the viewers could overlook it not just because of the quality of the performances and the writing, but because in the first installment, the victims of the crimes quickly were viewed as irrelevant to the circus, and in the second, the format was different from the first that we may not have fully registered that everybody — including Cunanan — was a victim.
What Impeachment makes clear right from the get-go is that everybody in the media completely approached the Clinton scandals wrong. Let us leave aside the conservative world, which the show reemphasizes, never trusted Clinton and really was willing to do anything to bring him down. (The series makes this very clear by showing that George Conway, famous for being an anti-Trumper was very viable in wanting Clinton impeached — something the liberal media was really comfortable in overlooking the past few years.) What is clear in retrospect is that the liberal media was just as compliant in declaring the narrative. The victim of all of these accusations of assault and using his power to have affairs with women was — the accused.
That was the prevalent attitude, by the way, of not just the media, but every single late night comic that made a joke about everything that was going on at that time. The narrative that everybody seemed to agree on was that adultery might be sin, but it wasn’t serious enough to bring down the Presidency. (The fact that a decade earlier Gary Hart, a man far more qualified for the White House than Clinton ever was, was brought down by an adultery scandal, was something the media never brought up.) And if we’re being honest, even that wasn’t the real thing we found disturbing. No, the overwhelming implication was that none of the women who were involved with Clinton were…f-able enough to be worth all this fuss.
Because that was the overarching narrative. The line that I heard from so many late night comics was that if you were going to lose the Presidency over a woman, it had better be Marilyn Monroe. (And again, the fact that the historical narrative was that JFK, a man whose adulteries were even worse than Clinton was then — and still is — regarded as a liberal icon, says something very upsetting about our history.) I actually remember an SNL sketch which had a group of female anchors on MSNBC debating whether Monica was pretty enough, and how handsome all the people in the scandal were. It devolved into what was basically a sleepover.
And the world decided that was the scandal. None of these women were the victims, and as a result they deserved to be scorched earth, not the man who clearly was guilty of, if not high crimes and misdemeanors, then clearly being an adulterous lech. Remember how everybody seemed overjoyed when John Goodman took on the role of Linda Tripp on SNL? In retrospect, this wasn’t an act of genius like have Tina Fey play Sarah Palin a decade later or Maya Rudolph take on Kamala Harris now. The writers of SNL must have made the clear decision: why should we bother to have one of our own actresses dress up in padding and wear makeup? She’s causing all these headaches; let’s have her played by an overweight actor who doesn’t really look like her. And their treatment of Monica Lewinsky was little better; she was just a teenage bimbo who somehow should’ve known better than to seduce — that was the narrative — the most powerful man in the world and be friends with an overweight woman who was clearly using her.
And that’s the narrative that we created. Not just the media, not just the late night comics, everybody. Bill Clinton became a liberal icon, despite everything he did. No one ever apologized to Monica Lewinsky (indeed Bill Maher continued to make horrible jokes about her well in W.s first administration) It is only now, nearly four years into the #MeToo movement, far too late to do anything constructive that we are starting to look again at how we idolized Clinton. So maybe its right that Monica Lewinsky decided the only way to change the narrative was to help tell her own story.
The clearest thing about Impeachment is that it is all about the women. At the center of it, of course, is Monica Lewinsky. Played by the brilliant multi-talent Beanie Feldstein, Monica comes across as a woman who is so smitten by a combination of Clinton’s looks and power that she can’t see how badly she is being used. It’s not clear even in the series whether the seduction is mutual or whether there is some degree of grooming involved, but either way Monica spends months yearning after the most powerful man in the world, believing every story he tells her. You can’t help but sympathize her as we see how easily she is led, first by Clinton, then by Linda Tripp a woman who seems to befriend but has an agenda not even she may suspect at first.
The series makes it clear from the beginning that Clinton is a predator. We see how he treats Kathleen Willey before the first episode is even over. And then of course, there is Paula Jones, the woman who in effect started the whole mess. Some have complained that Jones comes across as a simpleton. This didn’t stop me from feeling immense sympathy from her for the get go. Annaleigh Ashford is one of the great actresses of the new Golden Age, and it says a lot about her talents that I didn’t recognize her, not just by appearance but by her attitude. Usually she plays characters so filled with confidence that it’s startling to see her play someone so naïve, who’s being assaulted by the most powerful man in the world is only the start of a years’ long struggle of abuse as powerful figures in the media make it their life’s mission just to use her so they can get at a President they dislike. I’m honestly not sure whose behavior towards her I find more gutwrenching: Ann Coulter (an utterly unrecognizable Cobie Smulders) who doesn’t care a thing about her or the suit as long as they can get Clinton on the record or Sarah McMillan (Judith Light) who does everything in her power to make herself seem like she’s on Paula’s side and then when a settlement is on the table, throws her under the bus to her husband so that they continue their pursuit of Clinton.
And I know this isn’t the intention of the writers at all, but at least in the early episodes I could feel sympathy for Linda Tripp. I’m well aware she’s the monster who (at least in the eyes of the world) started this whole me. And it’s clear that Tripp’s entire attitude is one who wants to be at the center of this but doesn’t want her hands dirty. That said, and maybe part of this really is just Sarah Paulson’s incredible gifts as an actress, it’s hard not to feel something for her. Sure she’s an egomaniac who thinks she’s more important than she is. Tell me you don’t know someone like that who didn’t work at the White House. And there’s something terribly sad about watching her in last night episode as she is assigned a publicity tour for Gerald McRaney to see the Pentagon. She throws herself into this with all the energy she can, and then when the tour gets bumped at the last minute, the hurt on her face is indescribable. And for all the horrible things she does, there’s something childlike about the way she looks at Newsweek after confirming the story for her own name. Throw in the fact that she and Monica actually bonded over weight issues (you can see it in the way they pick at their food and discuss Weight Watchers that they’ve probably spent a lot of their lives being body shamed) and you feel there was a heart there. Maybe as black as coal, but still a heart.
I know that some people have complained about Clive Owen’s portrayal of Clinton as not being accurate. But in an odd way, it’s appropriate for this story. There’s little of the good ol’ boy that Darrell Hammond and Phil Hartman made famous; instead it sounds just a bit more sinister, a little more manipulative. And the famous Clinton temper that was talked about in private — oh, it’s in abundance here. They should probably reconsider this as a new way to look at him going forward.
You feel for the women in a way you never did. Monica deserved better than to be a punch line for two years. Paula Jones deserved better than to end up Celebrity Boxing. Even Linda Tripp deserved better to be played by a man in drag. Ashford, Feldstein and of course Paulson, automatically go on the forefront of this year’s Emmy nods.
What about Hilary, some of you may ask? Well, we’ve barely seen her, which has no doubt disappointed all the Edie Falco fans out there. But I don’t see her coming out of this series with her reputation any better. During the whole saga, Hilary came across at best as someone who was willfully blind to what her husband was doing. What Impeachment makes very clear is that’s still the best case scenario and it’s more likely that it’s much worse — she knew her husband was a predator and she stuck with him through the whole process, not out of love but because she wanted power and she thought his name was the only way to get it. Right now, she doesn’t look much better than all the other women trying to destroy him for the same reason.
This actually brings to me my final point — the most obvious connection between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump. Remember how furious that at the second Presidential Debate in 2016 — just a few days after the Access Hollywood tape had supposedly put the nail in his coffin — the media was that he brought three women who had accused Bill Clinton of sexual harassment as his guests?
The thing is, Trump and by extension the GOP had gotten the message from their failed impeachment loud and clear. Trump just did what he always did; he said the quiet part out loud. Isn’t that what the last five years have proven? When you are famous, you can just grab them by the p — — . What this show makes very clear is that the only real difference between then and now is that Bill Clinton wasn’t stupid enough to admit it on tape.
Like I said, the reception and ratings have not been as enthusiastic or large as the previous two. But I really hope that Impeachment brings more discussion then among critics and awards. The old trope is: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” The last quarter century has proved both sides did learn — the wrong lesson. Democrats learned that as long as you bring the budget to a surplus, it’s perfect okay to lionize a sexual deviant. Republicans basically learned if you can’t beat them, get one of your own. Listen to Ann Coulter’s speech as to why they couldn’t let Clinton get away with what they think he did, and its perfectly easy to understand why the GOP was so willing to throw away ‘the moral high ground’
My score: 5 stars.