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‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ was the buzziest show of the fall — then died on arrival. What happened?

Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky in Episode 9 of “Impeachment: American Crime Story.” (Tina Thorpe/FX)
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“Impeachment: American Crime Story” was supposed to be a lot of things.

Revisiting President Bill Clinton’s sex scandal from the point of view of the person arguably hurt most by it — Monica Lewinsky, who provided feedback on “every scene in the series” — the FX drama was intended to be a conversation starter, an awards magnet, a ratings experiment and, above all else, a pop-culture event. It may yet become more than one of those things, but, at least on the morning after the finale, “Impeachment” just feels like a grand disappointment.

Initially announced nearly five years ago, shortly after the first season of “American Crime Story,” “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” was feted by critics as one of the best shows of the year, “Impeachment” felt like a no-brainer. One of FX’s tentpole shows, the anthology series also seemed well poised for a comeback after its divisive and somewhat bait-and-switch sophomore outing, “The Assassination of Gianni Versace,” which dove deep into the life of the fashion designer’s killer, Andrew Cunanan (Darren Criss). Executive producer Ryan Murphy applied his usual stuntcasting magic to l’affaire Lewinsky — Beanie Feldstein as Monica! Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp! Clive Owen as Bill Clinton?????!?!?! — and it seemed like the season was well on its way to TV juggernaut-dom.

Instead, the show that seemed to have everything going for it, including a splashy media rollout and Lewinsky’s imprimatur of authenticity, fizzled out. So what happened? Here are some spoiler-free theories, from the most impactful to the least.

It just wasn’t very good.

My tepid review of “Impeachment” was one of many that greeted head writer Sarah Burgess’s vision when the season premiered in early fall. Centered on a protagonist (Monica) defined by featureless innocence and a villain (Linda) by over-the-top grotesquerie, “Impeachment” offered up a quantity of characters in lieu of quality of characterization. Burgess’s thematically repetitive yet unnecessarily complicated scripts didn’t play to Feldstein’s strengths as an actor, while Paulson’s use of a fat suit garnered at least as much attention as her performance, which was further obscured behind wigs, glasses and prosthetics.

‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’ shows there are limits to how much we can (or should) rehab ’90s tabloid figures

It won’t be available to stream for nearly another year.

While most current FX series have found a streaming home on Hulu (hence the eyebrow-furrowing, corporate-Frankenstein phrase “FX on Hulu”), “Impeachment” isn’t one of them. Thanks to a deal made back in 2016, the latest season of ACS won’t make its streaming debut for another 10 months, when it’ll pop up, confusingly, on Netflix. (FX subscribers can, of course, watch the old-fashioned way or on demand now.)

FX chief John Landgraf conceded earlier this year, “I don’t remember the last time that there was a really water-cooler show that was scripted on a linear cable channel,” acknowledging that it’s hard to build buzz in 2021 for a show that’s not available to stream — a sign of how much the TV business has changed in just a half-decade. “Impeachment” might become a belated hit when it reaches Netflix, like the first season of “You,” but it would’ve helped if it were more compelling.

Where’s the ‘crime’?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the first two seasons of “American Crime Story” revolved around cases of murder. I’m fine with entertainment that doesn’t rely on violent deaths to amp up dramatic stakes — I often prefer it, actually — but the absence of a clear focal event in the scandal adds to the series’s narrative diffusion.

All the awful stuff that happens to Monica is more or less legal: her affair with Bill, her victimization by Linda, her sexual humiliation by the press and Ken Starr, even the vast right-wing conspiracy that sought to take down Clinton and accepted Lewinsky as collateral damage. But because so much of the season is framed around the friendship between Monica and Linda, as well as the parsing of legal technicalities (“It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”), there’s a smallness to “Impeachment” that there wasn’t in its predecessors, which tackled larger issues of race, class and homophobia. Lewinsky and the women associated with Clinton’s sexual misdeeds were certainly victims of sexism, but for too much of the season the show is more interested in underscoring Linda’s betrayal than in indicting systemic issues.

Adding to that sense of relative insignificance is the fact that the national shame of adultery in the Oval Office simply doesn’t register after the near-daily political scandals we lived through during the Trump era. After an insurrection egged on by the president, the power struggles of the ’90s have never felt quainter.

Lewinsky already got to rewrite her story.

Many of the recent pop-cultural revisions of female tabloid subjects of decades past have featured a key reframing. The Tonya Harding biopic “I, Tonya,” for instance, foregrounded the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, whose apparent solution to the figure-skating rivalry between his wife and Nancy Kerrigan was more violence, while the Lorena Bobbitt docuseries “Lorena” recontextualized her headline-seizing crime within years of spousal battering and marital rape. But “Impeachment” doesn’t deliver much in the way of fresh information or a newly considered point of view, in part because the real-life Lewinsky had already offered up the fruits of her hindsight and reconsidered her experiences within #MeToo in high-profile, widely discussed essays.

The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was embarrassing to talk about — but changed how we discuss sex

After 30 years, we’re had enough of the Clintons.

Hillary and especially Bill may be the only two figures indelibly linked to the ’90s that have evaded our nostalgia for that decade. We seem to know everything — or at least have made up our minds — about them at this point: their marriage, their ambitions, their compromises, their many missteps. Despite a late-in-the-season episode centered on POTUS and the first lady, “Impeachment” has nothing new to say about their storied coupling. Sure, ACS is about Monica and Linda — the women adjacent to, yet definitively not in power — but, like them, the show inevitably gets sucked into the vortex that is Clinton lore, and you’re not alone if you just wanna skip this particular memory lane.

Ryan Murphy’s very particular set of skills isn’t suited to this material.

To his credit, the super-producer has ceded huge amounts of creative control to other writers with the “American Crime Story” series. But Murphy’s fingerprints are still all over the show — his most prestigious to date — particularly in its two-pronged approach of humanization and sensationalization. That approach worked better with the first two seasons, particularly because the worlds of fashion, professional sports and tabloid journalism lend themselves much more readily to operatic flights of fancy than gray offices at the Pentagon or even the cramped grandeur of the White House.

In “Impeachment,” Murphy’s love of locating the human frailties and outsize desires within larger-than-life personages is a better fit for supporting figures like Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders), Matt Drudge (Billy Eichner), world-weary literary agent Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale) and press-hungry conservative activist Susan Carpenter-McMillan (Judith Light) — people who are used to playing a version of themselves for public consumption, or in Drudge’s case, eager to step into such a role.

But Murphy doesn’t quite know what to do with a naif like Monica (cf. also see the core characters of his wretched “Hollywood”). On his “American Horror Story,” a sweet, whiny, wide-eyed romantic like her would be bloodily dispatched in the cold open. Murphy has built a TV empire by whetting our appetites for complicated women — and in this telling, Monica unfortunately isn’t one of them.

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