Impeachment: Another Monica Lewinsky story, another easy smearing of a woman

TV: American Crime Story flubs its retelling of Lewinsky’s affair with President Bill Clinton

Impeachment: Beanie Felstein gives a one-note performance as Monica Lewinsky. Photograph: Tina Thorpe/FX/BBC

Impeachment: Beanie Felstein gives a one-note performance as Monica Lewinsky. Photograph: Tina Thorpe/FX/BBC

 

The Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal looks very different in 2021 from the way it did in 1998. He was one of the most powerful people in the world, she was a 22-year-old White House intern. And although Lewinsky’s life was destroyed, Clinton’s of course was not, even if his presidency was irredeemably tarnished. Yet at the time all anybody could do was make lewd jokes at Lewinsky’s expense. She was taken advantage of by her boss and then turned into a global punchline.

The affair, and all the hypocrisy and misogyny bound up in it, is a promising subject matter for a television series. Alas, Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story (BBC Two, 9.15pm) flubs the retelling. Worse than that, it repeats some of the sins the media was accused of when it effectively put Lewinsky on trial 23 years ago.

The first and second seasons of American Crime Story were studies in contrasts. The People v OJ Simpson, from 2016, was a taut revision of the OJ trial that, without letting Simpson off the hook, reframed the story in the context of the United States’ long history of racial wrongdoing. And The Assassination of Gianni Versace, from 2018, was an unmoored fever dream that presented an impressionistic commentary on the dark side of the American dream.

Impeachment feels like Spitting Image with a larger budget. Everyone is a caricature. Beanie Feldstein delivers a one-note take on Lewinsky as wide-eyed and silly. Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is a hammy impersonation

Impeachment, by contrast, feels like Spitting Image with a larger budget. Everyone is a caricature. Beanie Feldstein delivers a one-note take on Lewinsky as wide-eyed and silly. (The real Lewinsky is a producer of the series. What did she think of this interpretation?) Clive Owen’s Bill Clinton is a hammy impersonation, though he barely features in the first episode. Owen locates the unsettling undertones in Clinton’s magnetism but can’t find it in him to make the president charismatic.

It’s as if Murphy, the showrunner, and Sarah Burgess, his writer, don’t trust the viewer to have contradictory feelings about Clinton. So they have decided to render him unlikable in a two-dimensional way rather than acknowledge he was big personality with even bigger character flaws. Hillary, meanwhile, is written out of the story almost entirely.

The person who comes off worst in the first episode, however, is Linda Tripp, the government functionary who grew close to Lewinsky and then taped conversations in which the younger women revealed that she’d had a relationship with the president. She, rather than Bill Clinton, is painted as a villain – which feels like a retrograde development even if Tripp obviously betrayed her friendship with Lewinsky and was guilty of enormous cynicism.

Sarah Paulson was a revelation in The People v OJ Simpson, where she gave a sympathetic portrayal of the lead prosecutor, Marcia Clark. Yet in her latest collaboration with Murphy she plays Tripp, who died last year, as a vengeful sociopath.

Impeachment seems all too happy to demonise Tripp – a fate not so different from that visited on Lewinsky in 1998. This jars more than slightly. The entertainment industry was supposed to have changed in the wake of #MeToo, yet it still finds it easier to vilify women than to hold men to account.

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