Federalist Culture Editor Emily Jashinsky and D.C. Columnist Eddie Scarry discuss “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” Ryan Murphy’s stab at the scandalous affair between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
Emily Jashinsky: Ryan Murphy usually loses me around the first episode of his series and seasons. His insane output means a lot of his work is formulaic, and his critical acclaim means a lot of it is exhaustingly self-indulgent.
But “American Crime Story: Impeachment” is Murphy at his best, giving strong women their due with balance and passion. He also does something rare, capturing D.C. as the fluorescent-lit hellscape that it is while also conveying the city’s drama and gravity without being overly romantic.
The casting is both perfect and terrible. Edie Falco is a letdown. Colbie Smulders is a vision. I think Sarah Paulson and Murphy are doing Linda Tripp justice, something she’s never really been afforded. What do you think, Eddie? The casting is a little controversial, but who are your standouts and letdowns?
Eddie Scarry: The only real disappointment I’ve had with the casting is with Monica! The real one is and was a lot more attractive and had a certain confidence. Or that was my impression at the time as a young not-yet-gay boy catching glimpses of her on TV.
Beanie Feldstein just fit my memory, and I wonder if Lewinsky (credited as a producer on the show) was in favor of that casting. Otherwise, Sarah Paulson as Tripp is my absolute favorite thing on TV of 2021.
I didn’t know much about the real Linda Tripp because much of what I learned about the Clinton impeachment was done years later, as an adult and through reading. So if she was anything like this character in the show then, well, she was certainly a character.
Why do you hate Falco? She might yet have her moment as Hillary.
EJ: The confidence point is an excellent one. We see glimpses of it from Feldstein, but not with the swagger of someone who would walk around in a beret. We know Lewinsky said she was involved in pretty much every minute of the show. I think that raises a lot of serious questions. The show is obviously dramatized, so are we to assume Lewinsky rubber-stamped exaggerations and fictionalizations of the events? If so, what’s accurate (and new) and what’s dramatized?
Falco should have used the prosthetics to look more like Hillary. That’s kind of how ACS works. It’s a distraction that she didn’t. I’d like to see more of her too, although I’m glad they let Tripp repeat the gossip about the Clintons coming into the White House with bad attitudes and a sense of entitlement. The Paula Jones casting is incredible too, although I didn’t love Taran Killam as her husband — it was cartoonish.
All that aside, do you think the show is succeeding because of ’90 nostalgia and the benefit of built-in familiarity, or because it’s also good on its own merits? I think the latter is true, but I can understand the argument for the former.
ES: I would guess it’s probably true that the audience likes seeing this culture-defining saga play out in a storified and dramatized way that we all have such sharp memories about. But I also think that for a lot of people who’ve tuned in, they had no idea that all of this started with Vince Foster and Whitewater and a special counsel, and then there were these colorful people like Ann Coulter and Matt Drudge pulling so many strings.
All of that to me is SO MUCH more fascinating than the low-rent Monica-Clinton affair. And I would think a lot of people finding out about that stuff for the first time are also really fascinated by it.
EJ: Okay, I agree completely with that. Great point. Fearful of being in bed with the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” legacy media has smoothed out the rough edges of the Clinton administration for decades. But it’s a fascinating story! And Murphy is actually diving in, from Drudge to Coulter to Paula Jones.
That story has been waiting to be told in this format. And Murphy is subtly very brave by letting Smulders really nail Ann Coulter and her lesser-known contributions to the saga. She comes across exactly as she should, unusually witty and surprisingly brilliant for someone so young and beautiful.
I’ll also add that I think the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is often depicted as a fling and Murphy is plumbing the depths of the relationship to great effect. It was both sexual and emotional, and Lewinsky, having received hatpins and copies of “Leaves of Grass” from the leader of the free world, was obsessively in love. It’s easier to understand why when you have the full context.
Do you think the show is having any meaningful effect on the public’s perception of the entire ordeal?
ES: Right, the perception created by the media at the time was that the affair was this sexual spicy secret that two naughty adults were caught with but it was way more serious. I’m not some feminist champion or a storied Monica sympathizer, but something I do hope people take from the show is that to be the subject of a national pile-on, the butt of endless jokes, whether on late-night TV or now the internet, can be a very debilitating and lonely thing, especially for someone who doesn’t work in the business like you and me.
That’s what happened to Lewinsky and she was arguably the first one to suffer it. At 24!