Monica Lewinsky reframes the narrative (again) in 'Impeachment: American Crime Story' : Pop Culture Happy Hour FX's Impeachment: American Crime Story is less about President Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment and more about three women who played central roles in the saga, including Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky was a consultant on the series, which examines how a young intern not only began a sexual relationship with the president, but also became the subject of ridicule and even the threat of prosecution. The series stars Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky, Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, and Clive Owen as President Clinton.

Monica Lewinsky reframes the narrative (again) in 'Impeachment: American Crime Story'

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LINDA HOLMES, HOST:

"Impeachment: American Crime Story" is less about Bill Clinton's 1998 impeachment and more about three women who played central roles in the saga - Paula Jones, Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

Lewinsky was a consultant on the series, which spends much of its time examining how she, as a young intern, not only began a sexual relationship with the president but also became the subject of ridicule and even the threat of prosecution. I'm Aisha Harris.

HOLMES: And I'm Linda Holmes, and today, we're talking about "Impeachment: American Crime Story" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLMES: You just met Aisha Harris. Also with us is NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben. Welcome back, Danielle.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Hello, I'm always happy to be here.

HOLMES: You probably know a lot of the story, but here goes. Monica Lewinsky was a White House intern with whom President Bill Clinton began a sexual relationship that took place in the White House. Later, when another woman named Paula Jones came forward with an accusation that Clinton had sexually harassed her, the investigation of that accusation came to include Lewinsky as well. That was partly because Lewinsky confided in an older friend named Linda Tripp, who secretly recorded their conversations about their relationship and turned them over to prosecutor Ken Starr. Clinton was eventually impeached for perjury and obstruction of justice, although he was eventually acquitted.

Here, there's an all-star cast bringing all these people to life - Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky, Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp, Annaleigh Ashford as Paula Jones and Clive Owen as President Bill Clinton. There are also some smaller roles of note - Billy Eichner and Cobie Smulders as Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter and Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton, who at least in the early going is not in this very much. The whole thing comes out of Ryan Murphy's very prolific shop, which did the previous "American Crime Story" and "American Horror Story" and all kinds of things. And although a lot of his stuff is now on Netflix, this is on FX.

So, Aisha, Danielle and I have chatted a little bit about this show, but I don't think I've talked to you about it. What is your kind of bottom line on this show?

HARRIS: The bottom line is that - and I'm going to borrow from - Ben Travers and IndieWire described it as more of a flashback than anything else, and I have to concur with that assessment. One of the things that made for me, at least, the "People Vs. O.J." miniseries very compelling was the way it sort of toed this line between elements of camp and then elements of, like, real seriousness in a way that was, I think, very well handled. And, I mean, I think it helps that you have these sort of charismatic figures, and it also has this intention of reassessing the legacy of someone like Marcia Clark, the attorney who was prosecuting O.J. And Sarah Paulson also played that role. Here, this is just so dour and sour, and I was 10 years old or so when all of this was happening. So I am part of the generation where this was the first time I learned what oral sex might be. I still wasn't totally clear on it, but I had heard of it (laughter). And so there are so many details that I did not know, although I did listen to the really great podcast "Slow Burn"...

HOLMES: Recommended.

HARRIS: Yes, highly recommend it - delved into many of the things that are talked about here. And so those things are more fresh in my mind. And watching this, I felt as though it just feels like a flashback. It feels like we're kind of going through the motions, and I don't really get the sense that it's doing what the creators intended, which is to sort of elevate the three women at the center of this story.

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: It's entertaining enough. And I think that, you know, Beanie Feldstein is great in this role and really humanizes Monica Lewinsky. But overall, I wish it was a little bit more interesting (laughter).

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: Dramatic.

HOLMES: Danielle, you and I have talked a lot and you've talked a lot to other folks about the role of gender and masculinity in politics. This seems like ripe Danielle Kurtzleben bait, and I'm curious what you thought about it.

KURTZLEBEN: Even leaving aside the gender stuff just to get at my basic feelings, I really struggled coming in today to even say what I felt about it because I don't feel like I know, but I think Aisha kind of got it this and the IndieWire review she mentioned got at this, that I inhaled this show. I watched it, and I just plowed through it. And at the time, I was like, oh, yeah, this is good enough. But then it feels kind of like how I felt about the show "Game Of Thrones" when I finished it, which is, I am never going to think about that again.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: It was...

HARRIS: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: This is well made with actors I liked. I thought Clive Owen was very good as Bill Clinton. He generally made it more than just an impression, I thought, and I know we'll get to that. And Beanie Feldstein, like Aisha said, was very good. But I found myself wondering, OK, why this? Why now?

HOLMES: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Because Monica Lewinsky has already gone out there and tried to - and not just tried to but successfully recaptured her story, remade it and said, OK, this was terrible. I am now an anti-bullying advocate. I'm retelling this myself. I have rethought the power dynamics here. And as a society, we have rethought the power dynamics. We have rethought how feminists treated Monica Lewinsky back then. We have rethought how consensual this relationship really could have been between the leader of the free world and an early 20-something intern.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: This show, yes, made me feel worse for Monica Lewinsky and feel more for her. But I already, through "Slow Burn" and other things, had kind of rethought that. So I'm not sure - I was trying to figure out, OK, what more this show was doing.

HOLMES: It's interesting because what Aisha said about the "O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story" is absolutely right in that it had a little bit more of a tonal, almost a playfulness in things like that John Travolta performance, playing Robert Shapiro. Like, you look at it, and you're like, well, that's a choice, right?

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: I think this doesn't have that and probably, like, inevitably so, especially because they are, I think, trying to be compassionate to Monica Lewinsky, who helped work on the show. My thing with this was you spend a lot of time in the early going of this show on Linda Tripp. And I think one of the things that distinguished the O.J. Simpson season of this - that show had an idea about Marcia Clark. It also had an idea about Chris Darden. I think what it was trying to do was answer questions like, what was it like to be her at the time that all of this was happening? And with Darden, like, what was it like to be him? And also, what was he thinking that led to some of these decisions that have been incredibly, like, critiqued over and over again about the gloves and all that stuff?

I struggle to find an idea about Linda Tripp in this show that is interesting, right? I think the ideas that are in it are basically she really hated the Clintons on a personal level in a way that a fair number of people did. She hated the Clintons, she felt ignored, she felt invisible, and she participated in all of this for that reason. But you don't really get into much else. And there's too much time spent on setting up this friendship between the two of them given that we already know about it.

And I think the show becomes a lot more interesting to me right around, like, the sixth and seventh episodes. You start to get this story of how Monica Lewinsky was sort of brought in by law enforcement and became, like, ensnarled in this investigation. There's an episode that I think is very good that deals with her being questioned and kind of kept in a - like, a hotel in a mall. It is a - quite an episode that I thought was really effective.

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

BEANIE FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) Do you understand that?

COLIN HANKS: (As Mike Emmick) Monica, I know that you don't...

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) Please, please, you have to make it stop right now - please.

HANKS: (As Mike Emmick) OK. That's what I'm here for, OK?

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) You can't tell anyone.

HANKS: (As Mike Emmick) Monica, you need to focus now on your decision, OK?

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) Everyone's going to find out about this - mom and dad, my family - oh, my God, Betty. Betty, what's going to happen...

HOLMES: But until you get to that, I was really bored. And I will say, the failure to have an interesting idea about Linda Tripp is, to me, of a piece with the decision to put Sarah Paulson in a fat suit. It's this idea of, like, she's frumpy; that makes a character. And it doesn't, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOLMES: It doesn't. It's not just my general dislike of fat suits for a variety of reasons. Like, you will - a fat suit will never imitate what a fat person walks or moves like because a fat person who has been fat all their life does not move like a person who has suddenly had a bunch of padding strapped to them. And also, it's completely unnecessary in this case. You could have either cast an actress who had the body that you thought you wanted, or you could have left Sarah Paulson the way she was. And either of those, I think, would have been better choices.

So it's not just that, but I think that is connected to - there's not much of an idea of who this woman is besides, like, talks to Monica Lewinsky about dieting. And you know this already, Danielle, but my last point would be - I just thought this Clive Owen performance was completely boring. Like, my reaction...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: But not because of the acting, because of the writing. My reaction was like, because this is so underwritten as a role, it could have been, like, a bag of flour.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. I mean, I - all of this gets at stuff that I am very interested in hearing you guys' opinions on in terms of - when you are taking real life and narrative-izing (ph) it and, you know, compressing a timeline and doing whatever you feel like doing to it, how do you make those choices and what do those choices say?

And, I mean, Linda Tripp is a good example here of there are very intentional choices made about her; not just the fat suit, but she is portrayed so much as this sad small person who wants a bigger life. Like, she eats a lot of sad TV dinners in front of the TV, is just obsessed with power and status and acting like a spy when she's talking to Michael Isikoff, the reporter who was trying to break this story.

All of which is to say, though, that didn't really humanize her. She comes off as just flat-out petty and small and evil. And I found myself wondering - you know, on the one hand, there are stories that, yeah, she really could be a piece of work to deal with. And OK, perhaps that is how she was. But then again, she has - again, I'm referencing that "Slow Burn" podcast. She talked about herself as having real worries about Monica. Like, I am worried about this relationship. This was my friend.

Perhaps it's the friendship that I have a problem with here. Because, like, did she like Monica or was she just a flat-out opportunist here, you know? I don't know.

HARRIS: No, I completely agree. I think there are hints where she seems to regret for, like, a hot second what she's done once the cat's out of the bag and we all - we know she's officially turned on Monica and she's selling her soul to do so. I guess in a way, it inadvertently makes Monica Lewinsky seem even more empathetic. That, to me, was sort of the crux of what I was able to latch on to here - was just the way in which it really does do a good job - I don't know if it's necessarily the most, like, entertaining or, like, enjoyable aspect of watching the show, but I think it does a good job of showing how someone like Monica could be drawn to her.

Because there is that sort of two-face persona that Linda has. And Monica is very much the sort of - I don't want to say helpless because I don't want to deprive her of that agency, but she is naive in many ways. And just - the whole time while I was watching it, it felt like a horror movie. She kept telling her things. And I'm like, girl, what are you doing? Get out of the house. Don't keep telling her those things.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: And she doesn't have a lot of friends. And she doesn't have...

HARRIS: Right.

HOLMES: ...A lot of, like, peers that she's close to. What I did wish about the beginning parts of this is like, what did Monica Lewinsky want out of life before this became her life? Like, you pick her up kind of going to this internship. But it's like, where was she ultimately trying to get to? I feel like you don't really get anything about who she was outside of this, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HOLMES: And of course, she's very young. So maybe a lot of that was unformed. But like, even though I really like this Beanie Feldstein performance, and even though I really think the parts that focus on her are the strongest parts, I wanted more of a character. I'm also curious - Aisha, you are the tiebreaker in terms of this Clive Owen Bill Clinton...

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Performance.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to voice my defense of this after Aisha.

HOLMES: That's fine.

KURTZLEBEN: I want to hear what she thinks. But I liked it.

HARRIS: You know what? I feel like I'm going to be a bad tiebreaker because I lie somewhere in the middle. I feel as though it's an interesting choice to have him sort of linger in the background like this haunting specter. It kind of reminded me a little bit of the movie "The Assistant"...

HOLMES: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Where it's a Harvey Weinstein-type figure and this young woman - like, sort of an intern or, like, the assistant. And you never see the Harvey Weinstein-type person, but you know he's there, and we hear about all the things that he's done. And so it was an interesting choice to do that here. Obviously, we see Bill Clinton and her interact. But we don't actually see much in the way of actual sex. But, like, we see them interact. And I don't know. I think Clive Owen - I love him in most things. I'm going to say he's fine here. I don't think he disappears into the role at all, and not that you necessarily need that to happen. But I also don't think it was, like, the worst thing in the world. He was fine. Sorry, I'm a really bad tiebreaker.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: All right. My defense of Clive Owen is this - is that first of all, like, he didn't make this into an impression, which is good. Like, he's doing the voice, and they gave him a - the Bill Clinton nose and, you know...

HARRIS: There's so many noses going on in this show, by the way (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: There are so many noses in this show.

HOLMES: Really...

KURTZLEBEN: It's weird.

HOLMES: It is nose-forward show.

(LAUGHTER)

KURTZLEBEN: I credit Beanie Feldstein and Clive Owen with this and not necessarily the writing. But there are a few scenes with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky where he lowers the pitch of his voice, and he's very gentle and kind to her. And, like, by all accounts, Bill Clinton was terrify - is terrifyingly charismatic.

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

CLIVE OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Where'd you come from?

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) Oh, LA.

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Oh, you're far from home, too. Where you livin'?

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) In the Watergate.

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Whoa, high on the hog.

FELDSTEIN: (As Monica Lewinsky) No. (Laughter) My mom, she's actually moving to New York soon. So we're just staying in a condo. Sorry, I'm so nervous. I have a huge crush on you.

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Well, that's really flattering because you're beautiful.

KURTZLEBEN: Like, I have had multiple people who have met him tell me, when you talk to that guy, he always remembered your name, no matter how long it's been since he met you. He acted like you were the one person in the room. And it was incredibly hard to not like him in person. And there are scenes where Beanie Feldstein is looking at him and you get the sense that, yeah, she's an early 20-something with a crush but also that she's sucked in by the Bill Clinton tractor beam. I thought that was done very well. And even better, though, was the way that he can vacillate between that and being really angry...

HOLMES: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: ...A real jerk. And also, they make him a little bit into almost comically awful. The best joke in this whole series - I guess there aren't a lot of jokes - is he's arguing with attorney Bob Bennett in his office.

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

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) It's the worst decision in the history of the court.

CHRISTOPHER MCDONALD: (As Bob Bennett) Well, Dred Scott.

OWEN: (As Bill Clinton) Don't talk to me about Dred Scott.

HARRIS: (Laughter) I totally forgot about that.

HOLMES: Yeah, that's a good line.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, I laughed so hard. It was so funny. I mean, they make him into kind of a petulant brat at times. And I dug that because, you know, he was at the center, and he's very pointedly not at the center here.

HOLMES: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: So I liked that about it.

HOLMES: Yeah. You know, I want to ask one other thing, which is, there's kind of a shower of Billy Eichner as Matt Drudge...

HARRIS: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Cobie Smulders as the Ann Coulter...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter).

HOLMES: ...Edie Falco as Hillary Clinton. And there's...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HARRIS: Judith Light (laughter).

HOLMES: You've got Judith Light. You've got Colin Hanks. You've got this...

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah.

HOLMES: ...Whole kind of big group of people. Did you take anything away from any of those performances? - 'cause in a way, I would have watched a whole thing where the focus was how this affected media and the future of media. But I didn't get much out of the kind of thrown-in Billy Eichner, Ann Coulter stuff.

HARRIS: I mean, it was giving me SNL vibes. Like, (laughter) let's just have these recognizable faces play these characters. To me, this is kind of where it became the most, like, egregiously unsettling part of this because there's a lot of signposting and a lot of, like, trying to connect to what's going on now in these very flatly delivered, underwhelmingly written lines. Like, there's a moment where Brett Kavanaugh says something along the lines of like, I never take no for an answer. And it's like...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: Wink - giant wink...

HOLMES: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Don't, you know? Like, why are we doing this? It takes me out of the moment. It feels like this weird element of fan service. Like, if you followed all of this news, you'll understand what's going on here.

HOLMES: George Conway is in it.

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HARRIS: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: I have a little bit of a softer feeling about it in that taken together, all of the George Conway, Ann Coulter-ness of it all, at times I felt like, you know, that - there's a joke that "BoJack Horseman" often did where it's the '90s and they have a '90s song playing on the radio whose lyrics are, it's the '90, blah, blah, blah. Like, it feels a lot like, oh, hey, isn't that Ann Coulter? Like, sure. But at least, like, the character of Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, to some degree, you can kind of tie them to Linda Tripp and Paula Jones and Monica Lewinsky and all of this in that this is a show about people being very opportunistic with other people's lives, right?

I came away from this thinking trying to imagine my worst, most ill-fated romantic decisions of my early 20s with the jerkiest men on the planet, OK, and then trying to imagine the leading lights of Washington playing chess with me and that man because of it. So when Matt Drudge is being opportunistic and trying to build his career, Ann Coulter is trying to take Bill Clinton down, like, that stuff was all interesting but also kind of half baked because I wanted to see - if that's the point the show was making, it wasn't hammered home quite. It felt more like, yeah, a cavalcade of characters.

HARRIS: Right. I mean, I agree with Linda. To me, that would have been the more interesting focus. And if there was a sort of, like, duet between what Monica is going through and then how the media is capitalizing on it and how the politicians are capitalizing on it, that would have been a really interesting story.

HOLMES: Yeah. And I did like - you know, when you talk about the character of Paula Jones played by Annaleigh Ashford, you get this story of her being essentially taken advantage of by this character played by Judith Light, who is kind of an activist who hates Bill Clinton, as many people did as we have already mentioned.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: I think in some ways that, although it gets much, much less time, is a more effective and more heartbreaking, in a way, portrayal of how a person who had legitimately been hurt...

KURTZLEBEN: Yeah.

HOLMES: ...Was then re-injured by other people who were sort of taking advantage of that hurt for their own purposes. And I think it's the feeling that they want you to get about Monica Lewinsky. It doesn't quite work as well.

KURTZLEBEN: I think - the one other big point I would want to get to - when I interviewed Sarah Burgess, the head writer and one of the executive producers on this show, we talked about our experiences of the story when we were - she was a preteen, it sounds like, maybe around Aisha's age, I was about 15 - about how this was a story that had introduced a lot of kids to various sexual acts and forced your parents to talk about sex with you in some ways. Or in my case, it meant that I hid the Newsweek because I didn't want my parents to know I was reading about this sort of stuff because I was a sheltered Christian teen who felt weird about all things sexual. Anyway - but I find myself thinking now, like, the sex was so much what was focused on. And if you look - like, I looked back at the Starr report, which I hadn't really read before, wow, is that explicit. I had no idea. And what I'm trying to say is that I imagine if you were quite a bit older back then, if you're a boomer now - you know, I should ask my parents about this - how would you react to this show? Because this show - Aisha hinted at this earlier, this show has almost no sex in it. There's mentions of sexual acts, but...

HARRIS: And the dress.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

HARRIS: There's a whole scene about the dress (laughter).

KURTZLEBEN: Correct. The blue dress is in this, but we do not see the acts happen, and that is fine. And Sarah Burgess said that was an intentional choice because she's rewriting the story that was so prurient back then, like just so - everybody was focusing on the sex. She was reclaiming it and saying, here's it from Monica's point of view. We're not going to do the sex stuff. That is a fine choice to make, but I feel like there are very different responses to that if you weren't embroiled in the sexiness of it - and I use that term very loosely - in the '90s versus now. I imagine if you're a younger viewer, you might just go, oh, so she had a romantic relationship with Bill Clinton, and that's fine. But then if you're an older viewer, I wonder if that choice might seem more intentional and mean a lot more to you.

HOLMES: I was not a boomer when this happened, but I was an adult, and I sort of took it in through the Jay Leno and the "SNL" and that kind of way that the culture sort of took it in. And I think if you are in that position, if you aren't particularly proud of the way that you thought about it, it does come back to you and you do think like, hmm, I am not particularly proud of probably how I processed that as an adult.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, it's definitely - what's so maybe not surprising but what's fascinating to me about this is that this whole thing has had such a long tail in the cultural imagination. Even though I was only 10, I still remember for years "SNL" would have jokes about Monica Lewinsky. Just less than 10 years ago, Beyonce has a line in her song "Partition" - he Monica Lewinsky'd (ph) all on my gown. Like - so this is this is something that regardless of how old you are, I think she's been in the public imagination for so long. And I do think the experiences of it will be different. And I do wonder if you are younger, younger than I am, maybe watching this is illuminating it in some way because you don't know all those details. You just know it through these other cultural artifacts.

HOLMES: Well, this is a very interesting show. It is not quite over yet. I think it will be interesting to see how they bring it in for a landing. We want to know what you think about "Impeachment: American Crime Story." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thank you, Danielle, for being here with me and Aisha.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, of course. Thank you.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOLMES: And we will see you all tomorrow.

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