'The Clinton Affair': TV Review

Tawdry tedium.
11/18/2018

A&E's six-part docuseries recounts the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, focusing on the sordid he said/she said details, but largely ignoring the long-lasting implications of the event.

When Bill Clinton declared, "I did not have sexual relations with that woman," his words defined a decade and became a litmus test for the United States. Guilty; innocent. Whore; victim. Ruthless; loyal. Sex; passing the time. His lie even affected my household growing up: My father's conservatism deepened into conspiracy theory, my grandmother dismissed Lewinsky as "a prostitute" and the boys in my fourth-grade class called me "Monica" due to my chubby face and brown hair. Innumerable permutations of these opinions led to and/or influenced Clinton's impeachment, Gore's loss and Trump's win. Twenty years later, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal still radiates as #MeToo dissolves barriers of discourse around issues of power and sex (and as rumors of Hillary Clinton's third attempt at office hang in the air). But you'd barely know any of that watching A&E's muddy and blinkered docuseries The Clinton Affair.

Hailing from producer Alex Gibney (Zero Days) and director Blair Foster (Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind), the six-part documentary coincides with the twentieth anniversary of Bill's impeachment process, which began in December 1998 and led to one charge of perjury and one charge of obstruction of justice. The Clinton Affair makes some strange pacing and content choices, spending the entire first part covering limited context of Clinton's superstardom and the various controversies that pummeled him like sub-concussive hits until the Big One struck. But instead of detailing a comprehensive, chronological overview of his rise or policies before proceeding with the so-called "vast right-wing conspiracy" of lore, the producers zippily sprinkle Whitewater, Gennifer Flowers' revelations and Paula Jones' sexual harassment accusations into a tacky stew of he said/she said tedium. (They also briefly cover Juanita Broaddick's longstanding rape claim against Bill in the final half of the final episode.) But we know the real reason viewers will tune in: to see Monica Lewinsky take center stage as the doc's chief interviewee.

No doubt, this is a bad look for the Clintons. Bill's effortless smarm and Hillary's signature evasiveness reroute your post-Dubya/Trump nostalgia for "the simpler times," reminding you President Clinton's alleged sins were numerous and varied — from financial improprieties to multiple sexual misconduct accusations. But in 2018 he remains relatively popular in the American imagination: the original Teflon Don. That being said, the Clintons, whether they are indeed weathered survivalists or cunning puppeteers, are not featured directly here, merely shown via historical footage. They don’t tell their side of the story (likely because they declined to), so the narrative extends in favor of Lewinsky's memory. And although she comes off well here — clear-eyed, measured, mature, articulate, sympathetic — this doc far too deferential to her point of view.

Which is exactly why The Clinton Affair might make you feel like a vulture picking at the carcass of a long-past fling between an influential man and his intern, even if you know intellectually that man was the Leader of the Free World and their encounters occurred in the very seat of that power. I think I wrote "yuck" or "ugh" at least once each in my notes, my lizard brain responding to the voyeuristic minutiae Lewinsky shares here in dignified terminology such as, "We were intimate," and "Our relationship." Hearing sordid details about an exposed thong meant to entice the president or the origins of the infamous stained blue dress begins to feel grotesque and unseemly, no matter the stakes. (Ironic, considering the producers present multiple critiques of the sex-obsessed Starr Report.) You just want to shout at her, "You don't owe us this, girl!" (In case you were wondering, just once does she mention any feelings she may have had toward or about the president's wife during that time.)

Interviews with journalists, Washington insiders and political wonks fill in the rest, but the middle episodes hone so far into Lewinsky's experience and Linda Tripp's machinations that the documentary starts to feel as riveting as reconciling an expense report. The producers simply give us too many receipts on how the scandal eventually broke, trying to build their own shadowy All the President's Men-style climax with Lewinsky's recounting of how the FBI snagged her unawares in a mall. The final episodes account for the immediate nuclear fallout, but with minimal insight into the scandal's impact on Hillary's eventual presidential runs.

Despite its lack of hindsight analysis, the documentary gives me hope that someday someone will adapt a fascinating miniseries from this story (and perhaps cast the fabulous Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky.) "This is not a Franz Kafka novel," spouts an incredulous interviewee pushing back on Lewinsky's fear. Maybe not, but if D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people, The Clinton Affair is porn for repressed people.

Executive producers: Blair Foster, Alex Gibney, Jemima Khan, Henrietta Conrad, Stacey Offman
Director: Blair Foster
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (A&E)