In the category of Real-Life Figures from the 1990s Who Suddenly Became Famous Due to Bizarre and Unlikely Circumstances, the brilliant Sarah Paulson is now two-for-two.
Paulson won an Emmy for her portrayal of the doggedly determined but overmatched prosecuting attorney Marcia Clark in the 2016 limited series “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”
She delivers an even more impressive disappearing act as she becomes the scheming and unpopular whistleblower Linda Tripp in “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (premiering Tuesday), which isn’t really about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton so much as it’s a chronology of the strange and sometimes pathetically comedic events leading up to Clinton’s impeachment, told from the viewpoints of Tripp and her onetime colleague and friend Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein).
Based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book “A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President,” the latest chapter in Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” anthology series on FX Networks is a lurid, sudsy, melodramatic and addictively watchable political noir thriller and character study.
More than a dozen familiar faces portray a variety of players in the sordid tale of a horndog and allegedly predatory governor and then president who couldn’t resist his base urges even when he was in the Oval Office; the young intern-turned-employee who had an affair with the president (and is a producer of this series),and the vast array of colorful and in many cases blindly ambitious individuals who were obsessed with taking Clinton down, regardless of what it took.
Though when I say “familiar faces,” some of those faces are buried under so many prosthetics they’re virtually unrecognizable. Clive Owen as Bill Clinton looked more like Bill Maher to me, but it doesn’t deter from his effectively oily performance as an arguably great president who was also an indisputably great Fabricator in Chief.
“Impeachment” introduces multiple storylines that take place during the 1990s — storylines that eventually will intersect to create one of the biggest, most sensational and most embarrassing scandals in American history.
Some of the key events setting up the story:
- In 1996, junior employee Monica Lewinsky is transferred from a glamorous post in the West Wing to a dead-end gig at the Pentagon, where she becomes friends with the disgruntled Linda Tripp — who is forever name-dropping and reminding people of her vast government experience, telling everyone she was the last person to see Vince Foster alive — and is a pariah in the workplace, alienating one and all with her brash, combative, narcissistic behavior.
- In 1994, California working-class mom Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford in a fine, nuanced performance) is prodded by her temperamental, wannabe actor husband Steve (Taran Killam) to file a lawsuit against Clinton after a magazine prints a story about Clinton’s hotel room advances to Jones when he was governor of Arkansas.
- In 1998, Lewinsky meets with Tripp at the Pentagon City mall food court — but it’s a setup, and Lewinsky finds herself in a hotel room brimming with intimidating FBI agents telling her she’s facing a lengthy prison sentence if she doesn’t spill all about her relationship with Clinton.
And there’s SO much happening in between and around those events.
The great Margo Martindale is a hoot as literary agent Lucianne Goldberg, who tells Tripp to record her phone conversations with Lewinsky to get the good dirt.
Cobie Smulders nails the weird and smarmy speech patterns of Ann Coulter, who works with the early Internet pioneer and self-parodying gumshoe Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner) to leak salacious allegations about Clinton and Lewinsky.
Mira Sorvino as Monica’s mother, Blair Underwood as Vernon Jordan, Rae Dawn Chong as Betty Currie, Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Reaser as Kathleen Willey — it’s a nearly endless list of top actors dropping in here and there and turning in seamless performances as the story becomes crazier.
Even for those of us who remember the 1990s and recognize the names of all the players, the hopping timeline and abundance of characters in “Impeachment” make for a sometimes confusing viewing experience. This is one of those series where we could have used an identifying graphic each time a new character is introduced, like: “Women’s Coalition founder Susan Carpenter McMillan” or “White House Counsel Bernie Nussbaum.”
Feldstein delivers an empathetic and complex performance as Lewinsky — a young woman who was responsible for her actions but in no way deserved to be so vilified by the FBI, the media and the public.
And Paulson is nothing short of magnificent as Tripp, who was so blinded by her need for attention and her thirst to get even for slights real and imagined that she failed to see she was always her own worst enemy.