Even 23 years after it happened, it’s pretty difficult to find someone unfamiliar with the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Everyone and their mother has heard about the scandal that spurred the second case of formal impeachment against a U.S. president, although, like Andrew Johnson, Bill Clinton was acquitted. Indeed, the Lewinsky scandal is a piece of American history everyone seems to know about, but few of us know the intimate details. So yes, Lewinsky’s name is in rap lyrics and has been the punchline for jokes for over two decades now, what really happened behind the scenes?
In Ryan Murphy’s newest installment of “American Crime Story,” Monica Lewinsky herself works as a producer and tells her version of the story, one far bigger than any tabloid headline can capture.
From the very first scenes, the series begins to unravel how complex the impeachment scandal really was. While the story of Clinton’s (Clive Owen, “The Knick”) impeachment is one with an inevitable conclusion, the show doesn’t shy away from the details. The show begins at the end, where, for lack of better words, shit hits the fan. Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein, “Booksmart”) is pulled in for questioning by federal agents, leaving the audience to wonder how events lead up to Lewinsky’s arrest. Essentially, by mirroring the average person’s understanding of the scandal’s events, “American Crime Story: Impeachment” meets the audience where we are.
The key to what makes the show so riveting is the divergence from the traditional way the Lewinsky scandal is presented. The series presents the story of Clinton’s impeachment as beginning long before he ever uttered the words “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Rather than following Clinton himself, the show chooses to follow the actions of several of the case’s key women: Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson, “Ratched”), Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford, “Masters of Sex”) and naturally, Lewinsky herself. Each woman’s story is depicted with nuance and avoids painting individuals as heroes, villains or even victims.
Instead, it depicts each woman’s choices for what they are: rational decisions made in essentially good faith. It’s an incredibly effective tool to evoke empathy from the audience, and it highlights the cruelty with which the media — and the world at large — handled all parts of this story. The perspective of Jones is especially disheartening, as it captures the vulnerability, pain and unease of coming forward on one of the largest stages imaginable.
With only the first episode out, “American Crime Story: Impeachment” is already immersive and suspenseful. Our knowledge of the story’s end does little to ease the anxiety felt as we watch a number of women navigate political scandals and the implosion of their personal lives. It’s incredible to learn about the stories of individuals the public isn’t acquainted with who yet tie in so crucially to an infamous part of American history.
As we so often see, history is written by the victors, so it’s riveting to get a behind-the-scenes point of view that the world overlooked the first time around.
Daily Arts Writer Sarah Rahman can be reached at email@example.com.