Probing the peccadillos of a President

The Clinton Inquisition

(Reality mini; all networks, cablers, local stations)

An Independent Counsel production. Directed by Kenneth Starr. Cast: Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Lucianne Goldberg, Hillary Clinton, Plato Cacheris, Jacob A. Stein, Betty Currie, Vernon Jordan, Janet Reno, Lanny Breuer, William Ginsburg, Paula Jones, Harry Thomason, various newscasters and commentators.

TV has finally found a sexy soap to fill the void created when “Dallas” and “Dynasty” left the air. Though many complain about the costs to taxpayers, the Monica Lewinsky melodrama — which reaches a key plot twist today when President Clinton testifies — has provided so many hours of TV enjoyment, viewers are getting a lot of entertainment bang, so to speak, for the buck. It’s the miniseries of the 1990s.

Considering, for example, that $65 million was spent on HBO’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” which only ran 12 hours, the $40 million-plus probe by Starr and his investigators is bargain-basement showbiz, as it has provided endless material to TV news, chatshows and standup comics.

The extensive attention to D.C. sex lives represents the next logical step in TV’s progression from docudramas (“The Burning Bed,” et al.) to reality programming (“Cops,” “When Animals Attack”) to reality minis, such as the O.J. Simpson trial.

While the Simpson miniseries touched on such issues as race relations, wealth and the legal system, it still fell short of “The Watergate Hearings” of 25 years ago, which set the standard for reality-news longforms.

In that investigation, the key questions were “Did the President tamper with national security and privacy laws?” Here, the burning issue is “Did the President get a blow job and ask his girlfriend to lie about it?” And that’s the biggest problem with the “Clinton Inquisition” miniseries: Even the Chief Exec’s biggest detractors admit that the central plot is too flimsy to peg a seven-month mini on.

Still, the longform has notable strengths, particularly its outrageous humor and off-center casting. Refreshingly, Linda Tripp is not your typical Joan Collins-style vixen, looking more like Drew Carey in an Afghan wig, and her best moments came in her heartfelt July 30 “Imagine how you would feel in my place” monologue.

Typically clad in his short-sleeved checkered shirts, Kenneth Starr tries to project a sunny, Everyman quality, despite his role as a judgmental, relentless hound of justice; he’s basically a variation of “Les Miz’s” Inspector Javert, but without the songs.

In the Heather Locklear role, Lewinsky draws in viewers with her transformation from unknown intern to Vanity Fair model — a modern-day Cinderella, but in a stained ballgown. As the accused, President Clinton effectively balances outrage and saucy charm, keeping the audience guessing what really happened.

With polls showing that nobody believes the President but they approve of him anyway (not to mention a woman taping private conversations with her “friend,” and an intern sending a soiled dress to her mom for safekeeping), this longform has more hilarious plot complications than “Wag the Dog.” And, as a bonus, there are no arbitrations over writing credits.

However, one of the miniseries’ big drawbacks is the lack of great on-camera confrontations among the principals. Armed with only one brief clip of Clinton and Lewinsky together (hugging at some 1996 White House pep rally), TV shows have aired that footage more frequently than the Zapruder film.

Although this show lacks the in-court cameras that made the O.J. trial so viewer-friendly, TV’s talking heads have done a magnificent job of titillating viewers with speculation, guesses and rumors, backed up by endless vid snippets of Lewinsky, Starr and Tripp getting in and out of cars. But things would pick up considerably if one of them would lead everybody on a high-speed car chase.

“The Simpson Trial” certainly has its fans, but “Inquisition” arguably does a better job of capturing the spirit of our era, as it forever blurs the lines between privacy and scandal, between politics and entertainment, and between reality and melodrama.

And the D.C. dramedy happily diverts viewers’ attention from the Mideast, China, the economy and health care — mundane subplots that frankly don’t play in Peoria.

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