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20 October 2021

Impeachment: American Crime Story is a camp portrayal of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal

It’s not exactly feminist, but at its heart this drama is sweet and tender.

By Rachel Cooke

I haven’t yet reached the moment in Impeachment when Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) will successfully persuade Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) not to visit her dry cleaner. But on the basis of what I’ve seen so far of the latest instalment of FX’s American Crime Story, I can hardly wait for their inside-the- Beltway PJ party (according to memory, these adult women were unaccountably having a sleepover when this wild conversation took place). Yes, this series is no less batty – and no less camp – than those that preceded it (The People v OJ Simpson; The Assassination of Gianni Versace). Poor Clive Owen, who plays Bill Clinton, wears a nose so distractingly ludicrous that every time he kisses his adorable intern I half expect it to fall to the Oval Office carpet (“Don’t worry Monica, Betty’ll pick that up later… You wanna Diet Coke?”). Somehow, though, I don’t care. Paulson and Feldstein are so great, I know already they’ll absolutely nail the debate about whether or not The Dress and its stains should be preserved for all eternity.

Paulson, ordinarily greyhound-like, wears padding for her role as Tripp, prowling the corridors of the West Wing, where she works as a civil servant, with her legs slightly apart, like some ageing prizefighter. Her character is, we understand, bitter and mean. But the writers throw something else into the mix, suggesting loneliness and envy as the real source of her monstrous treachery towards Lewinsky (she’s not sympathetic, exactly, but she’s not a caricature either). While her warm-hearted, pretty new pal – she and Lewinsky meet when they’re both exiled to the Pentagon – has plenty of friends with whom she might go out of an evening if only she wasn’t always waiting for Clinton to call, Tripp is a divorcée who hasn’t dated for years: a bleak existence symbolised in the show by a jacket potato spinning round and round inside a microwave.

Lewinsky, then, isn’t only Tripp’s ticket to fame and fortune, even if her literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) – whose authors include the super-salacious Kitty Kelley – has told her that only serious juice will fly in a market saturated with Clinton-era memoirs. Lewinsky’s a genuine source of companionship and excitement, too. How good to have someone to sit with in the horrible Pentagon canteen, and how thrilling to hear details of what the president gets up to behind his filing cabinet. Tripp never liked him anyway, nor his wife. “Mrs Bush would rather have been catheterised than use the communal ladies’ room,” she mutters, having bumped into Hillary Clinton (Edie Falco) while washing her hands.

Impeachment is intermittently funny, albeit in the way that watching old episodes of Falcon’s Crest might be funny if you’re in a certain kind of mood and have consumed too much Aperol. The hair! The jackets! The loaf-haired colleague with whom Tripp must share her little grey cubicle at the Pentagon! (I love the war between these two, its front line marked out by bags of Cheetos, bottles of Snapple, and the odd half-eaten bagel.) It’s not exactly feminist, of course: the show plays poor Paula Jones, who in 1994 accused Clinton of having asked her for oral sex, entirely for laughs (“It takes a dramatic turn,” she announces to her sombre-faced lawyers, having helpfully sketched the president’s famously distinctive “area”). But at its heart Impeachment is sweet and good and brave, and this is what counts in the end.

Almost a quarter of a century on from Clinton’s impeachment, there can’t be a person alive (OK, Ann Coulter excepted) who doesn’t admire the grace and spirit Lewinsky has shown in the face of the horrors that flowed from Tripp’s duplicity, and Feldstein makes the most of this (she must also have met Lewinsky, who worked as a producer on the show). It has, I think, emboldened her, a brilliant comic actor, to deliver a completely straight performance, with the result that when Lewinsky makes excuses for Clinton – and even when she talks of her love for him – it seems not ridiculous, but tender: a painful reality rather than a girlish fantasy. He might have been the president, but the way he treated her was, and is, paradigmatic nevertheless. What unnecessarily flowery lies some men tell; with what unwarranted fervour do they throw out their hollow vows.

Impeachment: American Crime Story
FX/BBC Two, aired 19 October, 9.15pm; now on catch-up

[see also: BBC One drama Ridley Road inadvertently glamourises neo-Nazis]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West