In the late ’90s, at the same time Monica Lewinsky went from an intern to a national headline, I was a kindergartner learning the alphabet and phonics. Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d managed to piece these scraps of knowledge into a semblance of literacy—which they only realized when I peered over my mom’s shoulder at her morning copy of The New York Times and asked what “sexual harassment” means.
I can’t testify to whether this story, trotted out at many a dinner party over the years, is actually true. But it does illustrate a fundamental fact of my, and my generation’s, coming of age: I’ve been hearing about Monica Lewinsky and her relationship with Bill Clinton since I learned to read. This scandal is so widely known it familiarized us with some of the most intimate, unseemly details of the president’s private life—flashed thongs, semen-stained dresses, puffed cigars. The Clinton-Lewinsky case is, in every sense of the term, overexposed. But in a new depiction of the events, the third installment of FX’s American Crime Story, the series is betting there’s one side of the story you haven’t seen: Lewinsky’s own.
The scandal falls squarely within American Crime Story’s emergent wheelhouse. Over five years and two seasons, Ryan Murphy’s anthology has honed in on a specific subset of the larger craze for true crime: tabloid fixtures of the 1990s—a decade recent enough that it’s still in living memory, but far enough in the past to reassess. Much of that reassessment has centered on the media’s treatment of women and queer people, an approach that’s since trickled down from American Crime Story to other popular properties. (The hit podcast You’re Wrong About specializes in these kinds of critical reads, while 2017’s I, Tonya beat FX’s show to an otherwise ideal subject.) The acclaimed first season offered an unlikely redemption story for O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark; the underrated second painted an ugly, disturbing portrait of Andrew Cunanan, the man who shot and killed Gianni Versace. Even before it was wisely called off, a potential season about Hurricane Katrina just didn’t fit the American Crime Story bill. Now, the series course-corrected to the only ’90s story as iconic as the O.J. case, and one that followed directly in its footsteps.
Impeachment: American Crime Story may be named after the legal case against Bill Clinton, which saw the president convicted by the House of Representatives, then acquitted in the Senate. But it’s not about him, a counterintuitive choice that also works as a statement of purpose. We already know Clinton’s version of events, expressed in a memoir and privileged by a misogynist culture that punished Lewinsky while allowing her former boss to move on. American Crime Story sees little need to rehash it, instead demoting a transformed Clive Owen to the lower rungs of the call sheet. This Bill Clinton is emphatically not the star of the show. According to a recent cover story in The Hollywood Reporter, the producers even flirted with keeping him offscreen entirely.
Instead, Impeachment makes onetime satellites their own centers of gravity. First and foremost is Lewinsky, credited as a producer and played by Beanie Feldstein in a rare dramatic turn. Feldstein’s theater-kid earnestness is expertly deployed, as is her past playing teenagers in films like Lady Bird and Booksmart; her casting inherently plays up Monica’s youth and naiveté in getting involved with a superior who was, at the time, over twice her age. The specter of the #MeToo movement, which broke midway through Impeachment’s yearslong development process, looms large, especially the show’s emphasis on workplace abuse. Before a 2015 TED Talk began a reclamation of her narrative, Lewinsky was long known as a seductive jezebel type—the president’s partner in crime, even a temptress. Impeachment shows Clinton as the pursuer, a pointed reminder of the power dynamics at play.
Feldstein is quite good, a completely credible object of our sympathy. But the show is so protective of—and directly shaped by—Lewinsky that it overcompensates, flipping her from a cartoon villain to a cartoon victim of a patriarchy embodied by G-men in suits. Impeachment is not a piece of journalism, and doesn’t have to adhere to the same code of ethics. But the choice to incorporate Lewinsky’s input (she pushed the writers to include the infamous underwear reveal) while declining to consult any of Impeachment’s other subjects has artistic consequences, not just moral ones. For Monica herself, the effect is flattening. For her frenemy Linda Tripp, it’s more complicated.
Much has already been made of Sarah Paulson’s physical commitment to the role. To get into character, the actress deployed wigs, facial prosthetics, a movement coach, and most controversially, a fat suit. It’s the kind of showily unshowy, awards-baiting performance favored by stars like Charlize Theron in Monster and Christian Bale in Vice. It’s also seen a backlash in recent years from fans who’d rather see fat, bald, or just less conventionally attractive performers play the same kind of characters—in part because it’s fair, but also because it’s less distracting. It is jarring to hear Paulson’s voice come out of a body and face that’s clearly not her own. It’s even more jarring to realize the venom Impeachment has toward a woman Monica labels in the very first scene a “treacherous bitch.”
Tripp isn’t easy to like, and Impeachment doesn’t want you to try. This is a woman who secretly—and illegally!—recorded the phone calls of a vulnerable young woman in need of a confidant, then sold her out to the world. Impeachment depicts Tripp as a lonely single mom obsessed with proximity to power, always dropping names and feigning reluctance. “She’s inserting herself. She wants to matter,” Impeachment’s Tripp complains of a colleague in a moment of projection. “It’s very sad.” This is hardly nuanced but, as with most villains, it’s wildly compelling—especially compared to Lewinsky’s virtuous foil. Beyond her long relationship with Murphy, Paulson may not have been the best choice for the role, a debate the actress herself meekly acknowledged as “a very important conversation to be had.” Yet there’s something enjoyable about her character experiencing an all-out hatchet job as opposed to a redemption arc, or worse yet, the mushy middle between the two.
That middle is the Impeachment take on Paula Jones, the last and least of its central trio. Jones’s story is the most complicated of the three, so it’s understandable that Impeachment doesn’t quite know what to make of it. An Arkansas woman who sues Clinton for sexual harassment, Jones gets caught up in a legal maelstrom of partisan warfare—and ends up getting the president to perjure himself about the Lewinsky affair. Impeachment seems to scorn Jones’s attorneys for taking advantage of her, but it also seems to share their disdain for whom they see as a rube in over her head. Broadway’s Annaleigh Ashford does her best, but she’s saddled by a script with incoherent motivations: her husband, played by SNL’s Taran Killam, hates that people might think his wife consorted with Clinton—so the show’s writers take him to court, giving her past the biggest platform possible. (Casting a comedian is another indication the show doesn’t take the Joneses entirely seriously.)
Just as The People vs. O.J. Simpson featured a cameo of a young Kim Kardashian, Impeachment is stuffed with bit players who will go on to have an outsized importance: George Conway; Brett Kavanaugh; Ann Coulter, aptly impersonated by Killam’s spouse, Cobie Smulders. They’re a nod to how yesterday’s scandals are today’s status quo, a wink at viewers’ hindsight and an argument for the story’s importance. Impeachment knows what it wants to say and why it wants to say it. But once it’s tried to level the playing field in Lewinsky’s favor, it doesn’t have much else to offer. Bill Clinton has been shuffled offstage; there’s not quite enough to fill the vacuum in his wake.