The First Lady Is First Tier Television
During the era of Peak TV, the world has become fascinated with political television in a way it never truly was in the 20th Century. But while there has been a lot more time focused on the executive branch than ever before, television — much like politics — still doesn’t know quite what to do with the First Lady.
This has been a fundamental problem at the core of even some of the great political dramas. As brilliant as Stockard Channing was on seven seasons of The West Wing — I don’t deny she deserved the Emmy she ended up getting in 2002 — the series could never quite find the right balance for her on the series. In all honesty, the series better served her when she only had a recurring role: as a regular, she always seemed out of place in the Bartlet White House and the series was always struggling to give her something worthy of her. Recent series like Scandal and House of Cards have leaned far too hard in the other direction: both Claire Underwood and Mellie Grant seemed far too more focused on their own political ambitions to be satisfied with their roles. Both Robin Wright and Bellamy Young managed to make their characters work, but in later seasons both seemed far too more focused on drives for the Presidency (neither of which seemed remotely realistic) than any characters in their own right. And this has not exactly been something that too many Limited Series have done much better: The Kennedy and The Reagans did very little to paint the most iconic First Ladies of the 20th Century in any realistic way.
Showtime’s new limited series The First Lady is therefore ambitious in that regard — perhaps far too much so. What appears to be an anthology series is focusing what might be its first season not on one historic First Lady, but three simultaneously: Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford, and Michelle Obama. The makeup of each episode shifts from each First Lady’s era constantly — one minute were following Betty Ford as she learns her husband is about to become Vice President, the next were in Hyde Park watching as Eleanor has to deal with Franklin being diagnosed with polio. The series tries, perhaps harder than necessary, to make sure that the viewer is always aware where they are, but the constant flashbacks and flashforwards are a bit for even the viewer of Peak TV to deal with.
The series still works extremely well, and that is mainly due to the fact that Susannah Bier and her staff have cast three of the greatest actress of all time in its leading roles: Gillian Anderson is Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer is Betty Ford and Viola Davis is Michelle Obama. No matter how strong the whiplash may be from the frequent shifting of eras, the power of these performances guarantee the viewer can never look away from the screen, nor would they want too.
It will be hard for the Emmy judges to decide which actress to honor the most, but so far my personal favorite of the three performances is Pfeiffer’s work as Ford. Pfeiffer has been incredibly selective as to when she works these days (even though her husband David E. Kelley is one of the hardest working writers in Peak TV) and I can’t remember the last time I saw her in a role worthy of her. When we first meet Betty, she is anticipating leaving DC as her husband Gerald is contemplating retirement. Then she turns on the TV and learns that Agnew is resigning and her husband is going to be the next Vice President. You can see her face fall.
Because there has been less written about Betty Ford life as a political wife as opposed to her personal history, the writers have more room to delve into and Pfeiffer relishes every minute of it. Telling the wives of Congress about her psychiatric history and battles with depression; challenging Donald Rumsfeld for her own point of view, confronting her husband about hiding his political ambitions prior to his ascent to the Presidency. Pfeiffer is bold and daring in every scene she is in. “I am going to be myself,” she says in an early interview and you know she wants to be. The personal challenges that Ford will end up facing are well known (in almost every scene so far, Betty is seen clutching a drink) but you can sense the power every time Pfeiffer walks on screen.
For Gillian Anderson, this is somewhat old hat for a woman who just won every award in the book for playing Margaret Thatcher on The Crown last year. And just as with Thatcher, Anderson does very little to ameliorate her voice as one of the most famous women in political history. (I imagine there will be some nitpickers who complain that Eleanor Roosevelt looks too pretty; is there any makeup artist on Earth who can make Gillian Anderson look unattractive?) As someone who knows far more about the Roosevelt family, I’m slightly less inclined to acknowledge the liberties they seem to be taking here — Eleanor was never truly enamored at the idea of Franklin running for Governor, and I don’t really believe Franklin ever consider her as much a political partner as the series seems to think. But what The First Lady does get right is Eleanor’s own personal ambitions. Do I think she wanted to have more of a job in her husband’s administration than the series says here?” No. But Eleanor Roosevelt was never going to be satisfied with the kind of jobs that Lou Hoover was used too, and this series gets that right. It also gets right the complicated relationship about their marriage; when Franklin tries to dismiss her, she says simply: “Don’t handle me, Franklin; I’m your wife, not one of your girlfriends.” And it understands the very complicated relationship she had with her mother-in-law (Ellen Burstyn remains brilliant) her children, and her own love life. (The First Lady is very direct when it comes to Eleanor’s bisexuality; Leonora Hickok, the reporter who was rumored to be her lover in DC for years is a major character.
There have already been a lot of online complaints about Viola Davis’ work as Michelle Obama — nearly as many complaints about the role of the real Michelle. Of particular amusement to fans is the way Davis seems to be constantly pursing her lips, something I didn’t really notice at all until last night’s episode. And indeed, there will no doubt be the occasional troll that we’re covering Michelle Obama rather than yes, Jackie Kennedy or Barbara Bush. But if you going to cover pioneering First Ladies, it’s kind of hard to not deal with a groundbreaker. Of the three first ladies featured, Michelle is the only one who seems to go into everything on something resembling an equal footing with her husband. She is far angrier when Barack becomes the first President to receive Secret Service protection. She has to be dragged into the campaign to make her husband seemed more relatable. And she absolutely flips out when she learns the White House wants to turn her ‘into a black Martha Stewart.” One of the best scenes in the series so far is when Michelle has a flat-out argument with Rahm Emmanuel, who will basically confirm everything we already know about him. It also helps matters that of the three marriages covered, the Obamas are the only ones who seem to truly have a happy one or at least one where they can talk about conflict in civilized tones.
All three leads are magnificent, but so is the rest of the cast. O.T. Fabergakke from The Handmaid’s Tale manages to escape the usual failings of an impersonation of Barack Obama to make him seem more than a caricature. Kiefer Sutherland’s normal dynamism is restrained in his work as FDR. And I’m impressed by the work of one of my favorite actors Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford. Both Eckhart and President Ford have been ignored by TV and film, at best shown as a cameo to stories on Richard Nixon. Eckhart’s everyman quality is the perfect match to the similar vibe that Ford has and may do the job of raising him above the four decade portrayal of him as a punch line. Other great actors are everywhere: Dakota Fanning places Susan Ford, Jackie Earle Haley is brilliant as FDR’s right hand Louis Howe, and the series gets fine work from smaller appearances from such fine actors as Judy Greer and Gloria Reuben.
I don’t pretend The First Lady is absolutely perfect yet — many of the parallels are too neat and a lot of the flashes between the timelines within the individual characters story can sometimes be hard to follow. But I’m kinder to projects that try too harder and risk failing, and in no way can anyone consider this anthology series a failure. I don’t know yet if Showtime intends to just do one season of this, or like Super Pumped make it into a regular anthology series. Well, considering that I’d much rather spend time with any of the characters than Travis Kalanick or Mark Zuckerberg, The First Lady has my vote for another season. Might I suggest Lady Bird Johnson and Bess Truman for Season 2?
My score: 4.5 stars.