American Crime Story is back. It’s a show that attracts big names and asks them to play possibly bigger names like OJ Simpson, Gianni Versace and President Bill Clinton. It’s also a show, in my opinion, that shouldn’t be as riveting and exciting as it is. It actually has no business being as good as it is. Creator, and Mr Television Ryan Murphy isn’t known for his subtly, but somehow, all three series of American Crime Story have been really compulsive and fascinating dramas.
When the first series, The People VS OJ Simpson started in the US, critics were caught off guard by the way the story gripped them. With the possible exception of David Schwimmer’s performance as lawyer Robert Kardashian (a role that leaned too heavily on the ever-present Kardashian clan), everything else about the series was pretty much perfect. What struck US critics was how sucked in they were, despite knowing how the story was going to play out. Sarah Paulson (a regular feature of Murphy productions) stole the show as prosecutor Marcia Clarke. She bought humanity to the role that was perhaps lost in the hours of news coverage. For those (like me) who weren’t as well as versed with the beats of the story, it was a thrilling drama that took me into the heart of a story that captivated the country in the ’90s.
The story starts not with the murders in Brentwood but with another infamous moment for Los Angeles law enforcement: footage of the LAPD’s beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, which would eventually lead to riots and an ever-growing rift between the city’s black population and its police officers. As much as we follow the media circus of the trial, writers Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski use Simpson’s story as the backdrop to tell a wider story of race and celebrity in America.
Johnnie Cochran (the brilliant Courtney B Vance) builds the defence strategy along that racial divide, even though, as Chris Darden (Stirling K Brown) keeps arguing to deaf ears, Simpson had all but severed ties with the black community in favour of his wealthy white friends.
Clark is the story’s tragic heroine, well-intentioned but not at all prepared for the way the defendant’s fame and skin colour would affect the outcome, nor for how many people would use words like “strident” and “bitch” to describe her. Darden is promoted from obscurity to sit beside Clark – and opposite former mentor Cochran – all the while enduring accusations of being a token and/or an Uncle Tom. And the story carefully explains how Cochran went from a dedicated LA prosecutor himself to a man devoting his career to accusing the system of racial bias.
On the surface, it was a show that shouldn’t have worked. It was a story where most people who were watching knew what the outcome would be. I could understand people tuning in with a morbid curiosity of how the story would be told or to join in with the conversation about how strange John Travolta’s face looked, but no one was prepared for how good it would be. It’s possible that it was a fluke. That somehow, despite everything, the wigs, the occasionally OTT performances, Murphy and his team had managed to capture something special not to be repeated.
When the second season, The Assassination of Gianni Versace was announced, I remember shrugging my shoulders. I was wrong (AGAIN!). Whilst, the fashion designer’s death was again used as the backdrop to tell the wider story of his murderer Andrew Cunanan. Cunanan was a dangerous narcissist who had been on a killing spree long before he met and shot Versace. The story, written by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, told Cunanan’s story in reverse. Slowly revealing the reason the man became a brutal killer. Darren Criss is utterly captivating as Cunanan and it’s impossible not to fall under his spell. While Cunanan is seemingly an underdog — or at the very least, an outcast — his goal is something akin to being the centre of attention. Whether lying about his profession or his income, Cunanan is always playing a role while simultaneously making himself out to be more important (or perhaps more relevant) than he actually is. Attention is not only his need, it’s his endgame. He desperately craves it and will stop at nothing to get it, which is perhaps why Murphy named the show after Versace — to deprive Cunanan of that attention. Personally, I found this second season to be even more compelling than the first. Criss gives such a powerful performance as Cunanan who is a man who is as charismatic as he is dangerous. What the American Crime Story series do so well is capture a moment in time. They use a story we may or not be familiar with and use that to explore a wider look at the people and culture of the time.
That brings us to Impeachment: American Crime Story. The series currently airing weekly on BBC Two. The season portrays the Clinton–Lewinsky scandal and is based on the book A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin.
The series stars Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky, Clive Owen as Bill Clinton and Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones. Critics haven’t taken as kindly to this, but predictably, I have fallen for it again. I’m aware of its faults: Clive Owen’s makeup is distracting. They’ve had to distort his face to make him resemble Clinton and I’m not entirely sold by his performance either. But, like all of the other series, even though Clinton might be the initial draw, the story is told from the point of view of the three women who would bring him down.
Beanie Feldstein is perfect as Lewinsky. At times she’s a naive 20-something who has been unwittingly groomed by a powerful older man, at other times she’s a juvenile girl who will throw temper tantrums when she doesn’t get her own way. Feldstein handles every facet of Lewinsky’s personality with ease. She’s instantly believable. This might have something to do with Murphy convincing Lewinsky to act as an Executive Producer to make sure they told her story correctly.
Writer and Producer Sarah Burgess makes sure that all three women who led to Clinton’s Impeachment are fleshed-out real people. His first accuser Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford) is portrayed as a woman who didn’t entirely understand the implications of her brief encounter with Clinton when he was Governor of Arkansas. She was just flattered he wanted to speak with her. She isn’t equipped to deal with the media who take pleasure in mocking her naivety. The people around Jones (even her husband) are only keen to pursue Clinton for their own selfish motives. Her husband wants to use her time in the spotlight to propel his acting career, her legal team aren’t even sure she has a case even when she draws them a picture of the president’s penis.
Sarah Paulson is the star here. Her performance as Linda Tripp is fascinating. A divisive figure, Tripp has much in common with Andrew Cunanan. Both have an inherent need to be respected by those around them coupled with a strange sense of morality. When we first meet her, Tripp has been a fixture in the West Wing for years, but she’s the office busy body. When she’s moved to the Pentagon, it’s because ‘nobody wanted you here.’ It’s a move that would prove somewhat disastrous for Tripp. It’s here she first meets intern Monica Lewinsky. The pair have a strange, but genuinely caring friendship. Initially, Linda finds Monica interesting and a bit of an anomaly. She wonders why someone so young has found herself in this role and also who her connection is within The White House.
When Monica feels she can trust Linda, she lets slip it’s actually President Clinton. Linda is stunned but interested to know more. She, like others, will later, dismisses this as a young girl’s crush, but as they become closer Linda starts to realise she can use her friendship to finally get the recognition she feels she’s so deserving of. Publisher Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) advises Linda to record the many phone calls that the pair share. These mostly consist of Monica pouring her heart to Linda. Monica moaning that, ‘he hasn’t called’ or recounting the last time she was alone with him. The recorded tapes will be used for the basis of Linda Tripp’s tell-all-book. It’s something that Linda feels uneasy about but also something she feels it’s her duty to expose.
Writer Sarah Burgess takes her time to show Clinton (Clive Owen) as a master manipulator. He’s softly spoken, kind and interested in Monica. The pair exchange gifts and it’s easy to see why a young and impressionable girl like Lewskiny would fall for him. Here, Clinton is fully aware of what he’s doing. Making calls to Monica late at night from the privacy of the Oval Office, and making sure Monica knows how special she is to him. Sadly, Owen isn’t overly convincing in the role, but it’s a tricky one to get right.
When the FBI get wind of what Linda is doing, they decide this is their opportunity to bring down the President. This is the moment Linda loses control. When Monica realises Linda has set a trap for her, she’s stunned and inconsolable. That’s not a spoiler as the first episode opens with Tripp’s deceit and flashes back to Linda’s time in The White House.
The initial predictable flashback aside, the storytelling throughout is fantastic. All the key players are given time to grow. This isn’t the story of Clinton. Edie Falco as Hillary doesn’t appear properly until the seventh episode. This is the story of three women: Tripp, Jones and Lewinsky. Each was treated horrifically by the media and by those who should’ve been there to listen to them and help them. Whatever you think of Linda Tripp it’s impossible not to feel for her as John Goodman lampoons her for a Saturday Night Live sketch. Monica gets a similar treatment with the late-night comics using her in their monologues and the news media seeking out old boyfriends who are quick to come Clinton’s defence branding her ‘delusional.’
American Crime Story might lure you in with its retelling of salacious stories we think we remember, but what has always impressed me about it is how it uses those as a backstory to make us look back at the behaviour of the time. There are echoes here of what went on in the run-up to Trump’s 2016 presidency. When a video surfaced of him boasting about ‘grabbing women by the pu**y’ those who supported him brushed off his offensive comments as ‘lockerroom talk’. If that sort of language was acceptable then it’s difficult to make the argument that we’ve progressed in the time following Clinton’s Impeachment.
Yes it’s ‘wiggy’ and Clive Owen’s performance somewhat takes you out of proceedings, but if you can put those niggles aside, it’s a compelling story of three women who were let down by everyone. It has incredible performances from the leads and is slowly becoming one of my shows of the year. It’s just a shame that the BBC don’t shout about the show enough.
Impeachment: American Crime Story Continues Tuesday on BBC Two.