Many of us have had — and been — that lovesick friend. You know: He’s crushed, he’s happier than ever, he’s dejected, he’s ecstatic, he’s going through hell, he’s in heaven. Bottom line, he’s self-absorbed and obsessed and very trying to be around after a few weeks or months.
In “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” that lovesick friend is Monica Lewinsky, played by Beanie Feldstein as an immature, vulnerable, entitled, but ultimately likable young woman. Of course her beloved is none other than the president of the United States, Bill Clinton, which makes her tragic gushing and the little sentimental gifts she brings him seem pathetic. She’s behaving as though he’s the class quarterback and not the married leader of the free world. And her self-worth is damaged enough to take his pretty words and secret backroom sexual encounters as a full-blown love affair.
That’s one of the powerful aspects of “Impeachment: American Crime Story,” which premieres on Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX. Despite including the real Lewinsky among its producers, the series does not soft-sell the twentysomething’s adolescent temperament. In the process, though, the 10-episode series makes it clear how dreadfully this unformed young woman was misused by a man in power, by his henchmen, by a number of self-interested men and women hoping to bring down Clinton, by the then-new Internet tabloid media, and, of course, by Linda Tripp, the unhappy civil servant who befriended Lewinsky and recorded her romantic bluster as a way to write a bestselling tell-all book. We can see how, by today’s standards, “that woman,” as Clinton famously called her, was clearly the victim of an abuse of power, a relative innocent chewed up and spit out, her White House career ended as a form of retribution.
All this is nothing new; the poor treatment of Lewinsky has been revisited many times since the Clinton impeachment in 1998. In previous seasons of “American Crime Story” — the first about O.J. Simpson, the second about the murder of Gianni Versace — Ryan Murphy’s anthology drama succeeded in profoundly reframing our understanding of 1990s events. That was the point: To look back at recent history with a clearer understanding of how racism, homophobia, sexism, and media folly played out in certain cases. “Impeachment” doesn’t provide a radically new context for what we know, but it compensates for that by delivering the familiar story in a detailed, strongly acted, and compulsively watchable way. It’s all tinged by the wisdom and awareness that come with hindsight, naturally, but the big draw is the dramatic retelling.
I spent most of my time watching Sarah Paulson absolutely master the role of Tripp. She gives an unforgettable turn — yet another one, after her Marcia Clark in the first season of “ACS” — as the bitter person whom Lewinsky, when she’s finally handed over to the FBI, calls a “treacherous bitch.” Paulson doesn’t soften Tripp in any way; the series, which is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1999 bestseller “A Vast Conspiracy,” only confirms Tripp’s image as an ethical nightmare and a coarse personality.
But Paulson is so good, she brings us deep inside Tripp’s thinking — her hunger to be a government insider, the way her bottomless insecurity manifests as condescension, how she projects her own professional misfortunes onto Lewinsky, and her efforts to convince herself that she’s betraying Lewinsky because she’s a patriot or because she wants to protect her young friend. Rather than just a villain ripped from the headlines, encased in Tripp’s trademark blond hair and glasses, Paulson gives us a three-dimensional person. Her Tripp stomps down the hallways of the Pentagon like an obnoxious bully, rolling her eyes at everyone; but inside, we can see, she is weak and covetous and sad.
“Impeachment” also expands out of the Lewinsky-Tripp case to follow the allegations made by Paula Jones (and, more cursorily, Kathleen Willey). Jones, played by Annaleigh Ashford as an easily manipulated and not very intelligent hick, claims Clinton exposed himself to her in a Little Rock hotel room when he was governor of Arkansas, and, as with Lewinsky, the vultures swoop in to use her for their purposes. Judith Light is Women’s Coalition founder Susan Carpenter McMillan, who ruthlessly persuades Jones to reject a settlement and go to court, while the likes of Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders) and Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) use both the Jones and Lewinsky cases for their own professional purposes. Some of these birds-of-prey performances — including Margo Martindale’s bit as Tripp’s literary agent Lucianne Goldberg — are cartoonish, particularly in comparison to the subtleties of Feldstein and Paulson; but in the process they serve as an unpleasant chorus of self-serving political goons.
Oh right, Bill. When I heard Clive Owen was going to play Clinton, I couldn’t picture how it would work. Well, it works, not just visually — at certain angles, he’s a ringer for the former president — but in terms of Clinton’s need to silkily charm and seduce, as well as his ability to go cold if threatened. Edie Falco, who plays Hillary Clinton, barely registers in the first half of the season, but Owen is present enough — though not too much so — to give a good sense of how Clinton compulsively fed Lewinsky’s delusions. He and his lies are the reason for this story, but, fortunately, they don’t steal the show.
IMPEACHMENT: AMERICAN CRIME STORY
Starring: Beanie Feldstein, Sarah Paulson, Clive Owen, Judith Light, Annaleigh Ashford, Margo Martindale, Edie Falco, Billy Eichner, Taran Killam, Cobie Smulders
On: FX. Premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m.