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'American Crime Story' Tells The Story Of The Clinton Scandal From An Updated Angle

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The story of Bill Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky is retold in the new FX series called "Impeachment: American Crime Story." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the program, which debuts tonight, shows the power of recentering an old story on new perspectives.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: FX's bold take on the impact of Clinton's affair with Lewinsky leaves few characters unscathed, not even Lewinsky herself, and she was a producer behind the scenes. "Impeachment" depicts her as almost impossibly naive and smitten with Clinton back in 1996. Beanie Feldstein is pitch-perfect as the 20-something Lewinsky, alternating between anger and begging when Clinton ghosts her after his reelection.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IMPEACHMENT: AN AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) I just sat in my apartment alone just waiting for you and waiting for you. Do you know what those nights were like?

CLIVE OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Monica, I was running for president.

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) Ask me how many days I just sat there thinking, oh, this will be the moment it'll ring, and it'll be you because you promised. And then just when I was ready to give it all up, you call me back in, but it's not to give me my job back. It's just to use me up a few more times like I'm all worthless.

DEGGANS: English actor Clive Owen is Clinton, playing the former president with a light drawl and a smooth style which keeps them from coming across like a cartoon. The real-life Lewinsky has said their relationship was consensual, despite the differences in power between a president and an intern, reflected in a scene where he tries to call off their affair.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IMPEACHMENT: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) You know this thing between us? I couldn't stop myself. It's not right.

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) No. It is right.

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) No. It's not, Monica. It's not right for you, and it's not right for my family.

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) No. How can I feel all of this and it not be right?

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Monica, listen, please. I need you to understand I've been down this road.

DEGGANS: Indeed, FX's series details how previous allegations from Paula Jones that Clinton sexually harassed her when he was governor of Arkansas mushroomed into a lawsuit which led to his impeachment. The program recenters a story about sexual harassment and exploitation once told by male-dominated institutions. Mostly, it focuses on three women - Lewinsky, Jones to a lesser extent and Linda Tripp. Sarah Paulson is mesmerizing and transformative as Tripp, who feels unappreciated when her career as a secretary stalls in the federal bureaucracy. FX's series humanizes Tripp while also showing her as a bitter, unlikable woman who befriends Lewinsky only to record their conversations about her affair with Clinton and give them to federal investigators. Tripp tried to prepare her grown children for the media fallout.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IMPEACHMENT: AMERICAN CRIME STORY")

SARAH PAULSON: (As Linda Tripp) Very soon, the country is going to discover something about a friend of mine.

EMMA MALOUFF: (As Allison Tripp) Monica?

PAULSON: (As Linda Tripp) Yes.

MALOUFF: (As Allison Tripp) What did she do?

PAULSON: (As Linda Tripp) It's not important. What matters is that you prepare yourselves. A lot of people are going to be saying a lot of things about me. Some may be nasty, but others are going to cheer me on.

DEGGANS: Tripp was wrong. The world saw her as an unfaithful friend, and "Impeachment" portrays her as a frustrated civil servant using the scandal to finally matter in a town where women with jobs like hers rarely do. There is much to like here. Billy Eichner is wonderful as Matt Drudge, who ushered in the world of digital political gossip, and Cobie Smulders is just frightening as archconservative Ann Coulter, embodying political opponents who would stop at little to bring down a Democratic president.

FX's series isn't always comfortable viewing, especially for people who might remember laughing along as the country gleefully shamed Lewinsky, Tripp and Jones for their looks, weight and assumed sexual appetites. But to understand how far we've come and have not on issues of harassment, exploitation and equality, it just might be essential viewing.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "GOT ME WRONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.