If you were anywhere near a TV in the ’90s, you probably remember the most sensationalized talking points about President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and his subsequent impeachment trial. Like, her blue dress stained with his semen, the footage of her in a black beret hugging the president at his inauguration. And lest we forget, the lie heard around the world: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” Thankfully, Ryan Murphy’s new FX miniseries “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” isn’t interested in retreading any of that.
Besides, “Saturday Night Live” did a thorough job on a weekly basis throughout the decade.
Instead, “Impeachment” showrunner Sarah Burgess shifts the story to the perspective of Lewinsky (sensitively portrayed by “Booksmart” star Beanie Feldstein), the 24-year-old woman who was the subject of late-night ridicule and sexist public scrutiny amid the meteoric rise of the next Great White Man. It’s a radical choice, though it shouldn’t be. Because there has only been a mere centimeter of change for women in the media and court of public opinion since the so-called “decade of relative peace and prosperity.”
But this isn’t to say that “Impeachment,” exalts Lewinsky and disparages Clinton (played by a shadowy Clive Owen) in binary fashion that has come to be expected from a too often self-righteous social media audience. Rather, the series adds texture to a story we only knew as one-dimensional.
Burgess and her team — along with Lewinsky, who is a producer and consulted on the script — don’t shy away from the fact that Lewinsky grew up financially privileged in Los Angeles and was accustomed to getting anything she wanted. Even civil servant Linda Tripp (a barely detectable yet spot-on Sarah Paulson), in whom Lewinsky confides about her affair when they work together at the Pentagon, notes her background. In the series, Lewinsky confesses that she was “in love with” the president and seemed more troubled by the fact that he was married than that he was also a father and on his way to the White House at the start of their relationship. As she admits, Clinton wasn’t the first married man with whom she had had relations.
Both the writing and Lewinsky’s portrayal pushes the audience to see her youth and naivete as the reason for her actions. Feldstein delivers each line in a soft-spoken voice, almost as if her Monica is equal parts nervous and excited about everything she says and does. It’s easy enough to believe that, considering her trajectory detailed throughout the first seven episodes of the 10-part limited series that were made available to the press. She goes from a young woman timidly flirting with the leader of the free world in his (oval) office to a junior staffer worriedly settling into her new job at the Pentagon (where she was banished to keep her at arm’s reach from Bill) to a frightened, infuriated ex-lover facing 28 years in prison for perjuring herself about their affair.
Time stamps throughout each episode mark the several years of the affair and its fallout — but the time seem to go by in the blink of an eye due to the sharp pacing and storytelling that details Clinton’s past sexual transgressions with women like Paula Jones (a wonderful Annaleigh Ashford) and myriad others. It’s a smart move that relieves some of the tension of Lewinksy’s story to show a broader look at the culture of sexism and exploitation in politics — from the Oval Office to a Drudge Report-led media and throughout a merciless federal investigation led predominantly by men.
Add to that, the series weaves in the rise of right-wing figures hungry for a scandal to bring down a Democratic president, including conservative media consultant Ann Coulter (Cobie Smulders, starring opposite real-life husband Taran Killam as Jones’ aspiring-actor husband, Stephen) .
“Impeachment” does more than deftly present the political landscape that led to a constitutional crisis. What is more fascinating is the relationship depicted between Lewinsky and Tripp — and by extension Feldstein and Paulson. Lewinsky has long been faulted for putting her trust in a woman who was neither a peer nor someone she knew very well. But Burgess and her team capture what drew these two women together: a shared desperation and loneliness from being relegated to the same physical space away from the White House.
“Impeachment” shoots the Pentagon almost like a beige-walled prison for Tripp, who was no longer in the company of “the most special people” who worked at the White House. And she was potentially looking for a way to retaliate against those who siloed her away from the center of power. She found a pathway in Lewinksy, a vulnerable woman also dismissed by men of the same caliber who unknowingly gave her the venom she needed.
The series interrogates an important and often under-recognized storyline: how and why women betray other women, especially in the professional space where they so often share a similar fate of being unseen and disregarded. The issue applies not only to the fraught relationship of Lewinsky and Tripp, but also to Paula Jones and her money- and fame-obsessed female lawyer (played by Judith Light).
That’s fitting, because “Impeachment” — and Murphy’s entire “American Crime Story” franchise — has never only been concerned with singular and sensational crimes. Rather, it’s more poignantly about the many systems that enabled those atrocities to happen.
“Impeachment: American Crime Story” premieres September 7 on FX.