FX is tackling the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. The timing has raised eyebrows.

"There is nothing that Trump would like more than to turn the homestretch of 2020 into a revisitation of the Clintons," one prominent critic said.
Image: A television series chronicling the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton and his affair with Monica Lewinsky will premiere in 2020.
A television series chronicling the impeachment of former president Bill Clinton and his affair with Monica Lewinsky will premiere in 2020.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images; AP

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By Daniel Arkin

Bill and Hillary Clinton won't be on the ballot next November. But with the news that the third season of FX's "American Crime Story" will chronicle the impeachment of the former president and his affair with Monica Lewinsky, some critics are worried that they could still loom over the 2020 election.

FX, a cable giant known for its provocative programming, announced Tuesday it was moving forward with an adaptation of Jeffrey Toobin's book "A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President" — with Lewinsky herself serving as one of the co-producers.

But the premiere date — Sept 27, 2020 — raised eyebrows, and some prominent commentators fretted that resurfacing the scandal could play into President Donald Trump's hands. Trump, who defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, frequently bashes the former first couple to rally his conservative base.

"There is nothing that Trump would like more than to turn the homestretch of 2020 into a revisitation of the Clintons," Mark Harris, a veteran entertainment journalist and film historian, tweeted Tuesday night, referring to the final six weeks of the presidential race.

"Don't do this, @FXNetworks. It's a disservice to our fragile political system and to the talented people involved in this show."

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Harris was joined by other professional critics and several Twitter users, who expressed concern that the third season of the critically acclaimed anthology series, titled "Impeachment," could overshadow the eventual Democratic nominee and provide Trump with a rhetorical cudgel to use against the rival party.

"I'm sure this new American Crime Story will be interesting and good but am also sure I won't be able to handle it coming out right around the 2020 election when Trump desperately wants to rehash Trump vs. Clinton," April Wolfe, a critic and filmmaker, tweeted Tuesday night.

But not all commentators were as convinced that "American Crime Story," the brainchild of prolific producer Ryan Murphy, would play such a pivotal role in the final weeks of the 2020 contest.

Emily VanDerWerff, a television critic at Vox, said she "[found] the idea that it will somehow become big Trump fodder at his rallies a little bizarre and baffling."

FX defended the premise and timing of "Impeachment." At a Television Critics Association press event Tuesday, network chief John Landgraf was asked by two reporters to explain the decision to air the series just before Americans cast their votes, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

"I've read it, I think it's great," Landgraf reportedly said, referring to the script. "I don't believe it's going to determine who is the next president of the United States." He added that suggesting the series could swing the election was "a little hysterical, from my standpoint."

Landgraf also suggested it was "toxic" for a person, convinced of the hazards of premiering the show before the election, to say, "We can't have conversations, we can't make art, we can't have nuance, I won't even wait to pronounce judgment on it."

Steve McMahon, a veteran Democratic strategist, told NBC News he was doubtful "Impeachment" would move the needle next fall. He said Clinton's conduct while in the White House "pales in comparison to that of the president we have today," who has been accused of sexual misconduct by numerous women. Trump has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct and has said his accusers are lying.

"As much as Donald Trump would love to run against Hillary Clinton, he's going to have his hands more than full running against Biden or Warren or Harris or Buttigieg," McMahon, who has worked on three presidential campaigns, said.

But another political consultant disagreed. Hank Sheinkopf, whose clients have included Bill Clinton and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, said he believed the series could help boost turnout among evangelical Christians, "who would certainly be offended all over again by the scandal."

The first two Emmy-winning editions of "American Crime Story" focused on the O.J. Simpson murder trial and the assassination of Gianni Versace. Landgraf said the third installment, like its predecessors, would "[provide] greater context for stories that deserve greater understanding" and "explore the overlooked dimensions of the women who found themselves caught up in the scandal."

The series will star "Booksmart" and "Lady Bird" actress Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky. It will feature Murphy regular Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded Lewinsky's phone calls about her affair with the president, and Annaleigh Ashford ("Masters of Sex") as Paula Jones, who accused him of sexual harassment. (Clinton has denied her claims.)

Lewinsky, for her part, told Vanity Fair that she agreed to co-produce "Impeachment" after a long dinner with Murphy, the elite showrunner. "I came to understand even more clearly how dedicated he is to giving a voice to the marginalized," she said.