Ryan Murphy’s latest drama, “Feud: Bette and Joan,” focuses on the contentious relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis during the filming of “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” More than a look at two screen legends who intensely disliked one another, the series explores themes of sexism and ageism within Hollywood. Stuck in a system that created them and then easily forgot them, Crawford and Davis’ feud, as Murphy imagines it, was as much about their struggles for professional respect as it was about their petty grievances toward one another. It’s a relevant theme and a visually appealing series that draws you into their world immediately.

Murphy, who wrote and directed the first episode, immediately establishes a central theme. Crawford and Davis’ feud was not about hatred. It was about “pain,” says Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who opens the episode. It’s the 1970s and she is being interviewed for a documentary about the women. The action then flashes back to Crawford (Jessica Lange), recently widowed, out of work for 3 years and broke and Davis (Susan Sarandon), forced to do a small speaking role in a Broadway play. When Crawford, tired of the poor roles her agent is sending her, comes across a novel that doesn’t feature women as mothers, monsters or wives, she persuades Robert Aldrich (Alfred Molina) to direct.

Pitching Crawford and Davis as the leads, Aldrich is rejected by every studio head he approaches in a montage of the sad realities of being a woman considered past her prime in Hollywood. One studio executive tells him they would rather tell the story from the point of view of the sexy neighbor character. But it is Stanley Tucci as studio head Jack Warner who gives the harshest response in a nasty, sexist tirade. He rails against the women, comparing himself to Zeus and the women to goddesses who he created and who he can destroy “with a bolt of lightning.” His grievance is especially deep with Davis whose lawsuit against the studio years earlier to end her contract ultimately destroyed the studio contract system. And then Warner agrees to do the film because Aldrich offers to pay him first.

Crawford’s point of view is more strongly expressed in the pilot episode and it’s easier to feel sympathy for her than it is for Davis, whose inner thoughts are less exposed. Lange gives a great performance as an emotionally vulnerable yet still resilient Crawford who knows how to play the game and desperately wants the respect of Davis and the industry. Sarandon gives Davis a hard exterior with slower reveals to a deeper pain. Both make it hard to forget their characters.

“Feud” will take you into the world of Davis and Crawford with visually interesting sets and excellent performances. There is pettiness and ego in their story but also an element of sisterhood as they struggle to empower themselves. As Crawford says, “Men may have built the pedestal but women keep chipping away at it until it comes tumbling down.”

“Feud: Bette and Joan” is on Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT on FX.

— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at staytuned@outlook.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.