THE first season of showrunner Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story anthology, The People v OJ Simpson, had its flaws, mainly in the casting department.
Try as you might, it was difficult to get past the fact that Cuba Gooding Jr looks and sounds nothing like the real Simpson.
John Travolta’s performance as lawyer Robert Shapiro, meanwhile, was the actor at his most eccentric: all fake eyebrows, odd pauses and mannered line readings.
In the end, though, none of this detracted from the overall quality of the drama.
It revealed new aspects of a story we thought we knew from top to bottom and pinpointed the pivotal moment when justice, celebrity, politics and race intersected, and a murder trial mutated into a gruesome form of mass-market prime time entertainment.
If season two, The Assassination of Gianni Versace, didn’t resonate as deeply with viewers, season three, Impeachment (BBC Two, Tuesday), about the Monica Lewinsky-Bill Clinton sex scandal, looks as if it will have to strain even harder to be half as compelling as the original.
At the moment, that looks like an unattainable goal.
Likenesses weren’t everything in The People v OJ Simpson. In the opening episode of Impeachment, they’re the only things that make any kind of impression — and not in a good way, either.
As Linda Tripp, the civil servant who manipulated and betrayed Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) after the latter told her she was having an affair with the president, Sarah Paulson overacts inside layers of weird facial prosthetics and an ill-advised fat suit.
Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones, the former Arkansas state employee who sued Bill Clinton for alleged sexual harassment and was the star witness in Ken Starr’s vindictive legal pursuit of the president, is lumbered with a grotesque fake nose that appears to grow longer from different angles.
If the make-up choices are peculiar, the creative choices are more peculiar still.
The Clintons are kept almost completely out of the picture in the first episode.
Bill, played by Clive Owen under yet more tons of latex and plaster, doesn’t appear until the final scene.
Hillary is limited to one brief appearance — a near-wordless encounter with Tripp in the bathroom — although at least the actress playing her, Edie Falco, escapes getting the Halloween mask treatment.
Impeachment’s opening hour focuses almost entirely on Tripp, who’s presented as a smug, overbearing individual with a wildly overinflated sense of her own importance.
As she bustles around the West Wing with an awkward, heavy gait, a gossip predator who consumes tittle-tattle and doles it out to others almost as enthusiastically, she imagines herself to be an indispensable White House insider.
When deputy White House counsel Vince Foster (Floyd Miller), who suffered from depression, takes his own life — a crassly speculative scene dramatising a tragic moment for which nobody but the poor man himself was present — Tripp spies the opportunity to write a tell-all book about his life and death.
Her plans are short-circuited when Foster’s superior, Bernard Nussbaum (Kevin Pollak), resigns and Tripp finds herself reassigned to the Pentagon.
It’s technically a promotion that comes with a $20,000 salary increase, but Tripp imagines it’s a conspiracy against her.
“The president knows I know a lot,” she barks at the former intern who has been given her old job.
“The president has no idea who you are,” comes the exasperated reply.
Parallel to all this, Paula Jones’s claim that Clinton exposed himself to her while governor of Arkansas is seized upon by right-wing forces, including the monstrous media harpy Ann Coulter (a spookily accurate Cobie Smulders), who set out to coax her into suing Clinton.
Jarringly, the scene where Jones, who’s portrayed as a squeaky-voiced ditz, meets with the hotshot Washington lawyers she’s been fixed up with and offers to draw them a picture of his penis is played for nothing more than a few cheap laughs.
Ultimately, the decision to focus so closely on the Tripp-Lewinsky relationship and present it a story of simple personal betrayal risks missing out on the bigger political and cultural forces at play.