With “Impeachment” and “American Horror Story”, Sarah Paulson remains the MVP of Fall TV


Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, instrumental figure of Clinton’s impeachment in “Impeachment: American Crime Story”. Photo: Tina Thorpe / FX

An actor who can make me feel sympathy for Linda Tripp deserves all the rewards. Remember Tripp, the Pentagon employee who illegally recorded her phone calls with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky as she spoke, sometimes painfully, about her sexual relationship with President Bill Clinton? Yes, this charmer. When Tripp turned those tapes over to Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr, she helped pave the way for Clinton’s impeachment in 1998.

In the aftermath, Tripp, then 49, also betrayed Lewinsky, 25, who saw her as a trusted confidante. She became known as one of America’s most hated people – and arguably one of the worst friends in history – for putting Lewinsky into the media spotlight.

In the penultimate episode of FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story”, Sarah Paulson, playing Tripp, is questioned by Starr’s grand jury. Why did she film Lewinsky? How could exposing a friend to a surveillance storm protect her, as Tripp claimed? As Paulson’s Tripp is questioned, the character’s outward acuity and the underlying paranoia and anxiety intensify. You see in Paulson’s eyes an attempt to project strength, but also a confusion and defensiveness that ends up coming out shaking in his voice which she quickly suppresses.

Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, who betrayed a friend because she thought it was the right thing to do, in “Impeachment: American Crime Story”. Photo: Tina Thorpe / FX

Paulson’s scene and performance underscore something that is clear from the first episode of “Impeachment”: Tripp believed his actions were heroic. Watching this set of rights, injuries, underhandedness and vulnerability crumble internally as Tripp realizes that she will forever be seen as a villain has easily been one of the best moments on television in 2021.

I don’t particularly think Tripp, who passed away in 2020, needed to be redeemed in pop culture. But Paulson’s performance reminded me that frequently the Linda Tripps of the world believe they are on the side of justice – even when they surreptitiously record a friend’s intimate confessions.

If Paulson had only played Tripp this year, she would already be vying for TV MVP in 2021. But when you add her other performances this fall on “American Horror Story: Double Feature” into the mix, you have to give him the title of pure versatility.

While “Impeachment” is great television, this season’s “American Horror Story” was decidedly… not. But from the messy, forked chapter of the FX anthology series, Paulson appeared as the pearl. In the first part, “Red Tide”, his sick and homeless Karen is the surprise moral compass in a city invaded by pharmaceutically created vampires. As we’ve seen during her nine seasons on “AHS,” no one plays outrageous emotions with Paulson’s undertone, and she has often helped elevate the quality of a Ryan Murphy’s project with this combination.

In the second part of the “AHS” season, titled “Death Valley,” Paulson brought subtle comedy to the role of another figure in 20th century American history: First Lady Mamie Eisenhower. His approach to Eisenhower’s sci-fi was so picky, idiosyncratic, and (possibly) confrontational that it made me more interested in the real woman, a figure rarely mentioned on lists of the most influential first ladies.

Sarah Paulson as Mamie Eisenhower, who is not one of the country’s most important first ladies, in “American Horror Story: Double Feature”. Photo: FX

This brings us back to Tripp, or at least his portrayal by Paulson. In a previous episode of “Impeachment,” we see her watching “Saturday Night Live” and the infamous skit where tall, beefy John Goodman plays a parody of Tripp, seeking to record Molly Shannon’s Lewinsky over lunch. The way Paulson registers the shock and embarrassment on her face as she watches Goodman portray her, before quickly forcing herself to laugh, is a master class when it comes to reaction.

My overall vision of Tripp hasn’t changed with “Impeachment”. I’m probably more convinced that Lewinsky’s recording was morally repugnant for how it forever changed the young woman’s life. But watching Paulson inhabit Tripp is proof that in the hands of the right actor, there are always new dimensions to explore, even in the most slandered figures we thought we knew.

The final of “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (TV-MA) airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, November 9 on FX.

“American Crime Story: Double functionality” (TV-MA) is now streaming on Hulu.

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