A DRY-CLEANING BILL to remove stain on reputations?
Norman Warwick considers Impeachment
James Poniewozik is the chief television critic at The New York Times-. He writes reviews and essays with an emphasis on television as it reflects a changing culture and politics. He previously spent sixteen years with Time magazine as a columnist and critic. @poniewozik
I am still not sure whether my race to find catch-up tv of the first episode of Impeachment was despite or because of his detailed review but once I had caught up I was hooked, and have watched the subsequent episodes shown since, on BBC2, on time, every time.
Poniewozik (left) opened his essay by making points that ar first suggested the series might noit be worth following.
¨One thing that jumps out at you in the opening hour of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story is how layered it is´, he began. ´and by “layered,” I refer to the makeup!
The premiere ends with the revelation of what appears to be the animatronic replica of William Jefferson Clinton, though somewhere inside that carapace of cosmetics is, I am told, the human actor Clive Owen. Likewise, as Linda Tripp — the bureaucrat who recorded the former White House intern Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) admitting to a presidential affair — Sarah Paulson gives an acute performance from behind a Halloween costume of prosthetics.
The uncanny-valley facial plasterwork, while distracting, is not a reflection on either actor’s skill. But it is a metaphor for the challenge of a series like “Impeachment.”
Is a docudrama’s goal to recreate every detail of its subject with photorealistic precision? Or is it to interpret, to have an angle, to help the audience see a much-told story with new eyes? This is the difference between a drama that expands our view of the past and a star-packed Wikipedia entry.
Impeachment, leaves little out. There are few historical bases it does not tag. But despite several striking performances, its perspective and ideas break out only occasionally from underneath the pancaked strata of details.
Past installments of this Ryan Murphy-produced franchise took on the O.J. Simpson murder case and the killing spree of Andrew Cunanan. Impeachment, credited to head writer Sarah Burgess, focuses less on the White House and more on the women who drove, or were run over by, the scandal. You might say that this avoids the crime that the title promises. But it also invites you to ask what the crime was, if any, and who committed it.
The first half falls to the modern TV ailment of setup-itis, spending sombre hours skipping around the 1990s to recap familiar points: the sexual harassment lawsuit against Clinton by Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford); the investigation by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr (Dan Bakkedahl); the beret; the blue dress. You may struggle to stay interested if you followed the case (i.e., were alive) at the time, or listened to the “Slow Burn” podcast season about it.
The through-line is the experience of Tripp and Lewinsky (characters shown right) and, to a lesser extent, Jones, each of whom became famous and vilified. Lewinsky meets Tripp after she’s been exiled from the White House to keep the president from temptation and scandal. Lonely and bereft, she turns to her older colleague as a sounding board.
At times, it’s a delicate treatment of an ambiguous relationship — is Tripp genuinely concerned for Lewinsky, grooming her or both? But too often their conversations, which draw on Tripp’s tapes and other records, feel more like dramatic re-enactments than interactions between real people.
Tripp is a turbulent story engine, resentful, contemptuous of the President and her co-workers, nursing an inflated sense of importance. Paulson strives mightily for sympathy, finding in Tripp’s desire to lash out and write a tell-all the frustration of a professional longing for respect. But she’s working with a story that comes close to caricature, lingering, for instance, on Tripp’s lonely microwaved dinners in front of the tube. (Though props for the prime-time deep cut of having her watch Ted Danson’s “Gulliver’s Travels” mini-series in a 1996 scene.)
Jones gets less screen time, seized as a battering ram by the conservative activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan (a gale-force Judith Light) and exposed to the snickering attention of the media with her charge that Clinton propositioned her for oral sex. Ashford’s human-scale performance runs into a script that often indulges the classist stereotypes (“sweet, dumb as a rock,” in Carpenter-McMillan’s words) it wants to deplore.
The show does some of its best work with the peripheral crew of conservative opportunists who seize on the scandal: the acerbic, cynical Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), the Web 1.0 gossip Matt Drudge (a perfectly cast Billy Eichner) and the literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), a dirt-seeking missile.
If nothing else, it’s exciting to be around people who love their work. “Impeachment” is at its sharpest about gossip, how it moves and confers power. The most spoken line may be a variation on, “How did you know that?”
But the series lacks a clarifying focus. This could have been a story, à la last year’s “Mrs. America,” about the birth of the vast right-wing attack machine, or a MeToo-informed reconsideration of Clinton’s behavior.
These ideas are raised but not deepened. (Though there is the nudge-to-the-ribs appearance of a young Brett Kavanaugh at a Starr team meeting saying, “I never like to take no for an answer.”) Opportunities are left on the table, like hiring the formidable Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton but using her as a passing presence (in the first seven episodes of 10), as if simply for the Carmela Soprano echo.
In Episode 6, when Starr’s investigators, accompanied by Tripp, ambush Lewinsky at a mall and question her at an adjoining hotel — a plan sleazily named “Operation Prom Night”—“Impeachment” finds a voice. Suddenly, everything clicks: tone, tension, emotion. The cornered target nearly breaks down over the threat of prison, but also cannily holds her interrogators off, buying time with a trip to Crate and Barrel and a chain restaurant.
It’s like “The Americans” by way of “Mallrats,” with intrigue, farce and a jagged cut of betrayal. It is, dare I say it, entertaining, which is not a sign of disrespect to the subject matter but of engagement with it. (The O.J. Simpson season was deadly serious about race and sexism, but also a wild and swaggering ride.)
By Episode 7, “Impeachment” is back to Clinton — more an impression than a performance by Owen — and its broad-focus book report. But we’ve gotten a glimpse at its most interesting subject. “Impeachment” argues for an idea of Lewinsky both more ordinary and more complex than the punchline of the leering media circus and late-night shows, even if Feldstein leans harder into the character’s melodrama.
But even here someone else has gotten to the subject before and more powerfully — the actual Monica Lewinsky, who serves as a producer and has been reclaiming her story with a sharp, funny public voice. In a 2014 Vanity Fair essay, she wrote, ´It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person´. It’s a worthy point; if only the rest of Impeachment were more surprising.
I agree with all the deficits Mr Poniewozik counts in this article, though whether they would have been as noticeable to me without his signposted warnings, I can never know. The characters, who let us not forget were real life big players, (for the most part) on a global stage, do seem to be wooden-puppet caricatures,…..and as we approach episode five at the time of writing, Hilary has hardly even peeked round a corner. Actually when I call the characters caricatures, I think what I really mean is grotesques, and it is hard to feel sorry for any of them. The media seem less campaigners than muck-spreaders, the literary agents seem hard-nosed profiteers, the police seem a body that knows its place, the intern concerned seems enthralled rather than entrapped, (or are those two terms meaning the same thing?) and Clinton as both seducer and seduced rather than a Saville
In fact these first four episodes have seemed even handed if only because none of the protagonists earn our respect or our sympathy. I hope the series might remind us where our sympathies should lie (I mean rest rather than be untruthful, or unfaithful) and who should be impeached and who should be pardoned.
The tv series has thus far not impacted on me as much as did the film Primary Colours with Emma Thompson. That 1998 film was an American comedy-drama directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay by Elaine May was adapted from the novel Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics, a roman à clef about Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992, which was originally published anonymously, but in 1996 was revealed to have been written by journalist Joe Klein, who had been covering Clinton’s campaign for Newsweek. (no conspiracies there, then?) The film starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Maura Tierney, Larry Hagman, and Adrian Lester. The film didn’t address Ms. Lewinshi but did show the proclivities for lechery that led the President to yet another tangled web.
Primary Colours was critically acclaimed but a box office bomb, earning $52 million from a $65 million budget. Bates was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her performance, and May was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Impeachment might yet shine a brighter light down what we know are the dark corridors of power (even if we may not find out who held that power) but meanwhile it is interesting to measure how the smooth, slightly weak character in Primary Colours grew up to be the seedier character of Bill Clinton and how neither of them grew up to be what most people would think of as Presidential.
Meanwhile I await a tv drama series, perhaps called Don´t Touch, that will not be about oral sex in the oval office but will instead ask who created covid and why and who were they targeting or was it all really camouflaging the breakdown of civilisation?
Presenter Steve Bewick will this week feature in his Hot Biscuits Jazz broadcast extracts from a live set from the Freddy Garner Quartet at the Slug n Lettuce featuring Jim Garner (Sax), James Adolpho (Bass), Phil Bennett (Drums) and Freddie on keyboard. The broadcast further includes jazz from South Wales with Dick Hamer, solo and the James Kilby Chadwick Trio. New releases from Rez Abbasi and a trio of Ian Shaw, Ian Bellamy and Jamie Safir will also be heard. If this sounds interesting then share it with your friends. Join us on Wednesday, or Thursday at 9pm, (GMT) or late Saturday at 11pm (GMT) at www.fc-radio.co.uk For archives of my past shows go to www.mixcloud.com/stevebewick
The primary source for this article was written by James Poniewozick and published in The New York Times.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.
As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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