The First Lady Is an Egregiously Miscast Missed Opportunity
The First Lady It could have been amazing. A drama that interweaves the biographies of three extraordinary FLOTUSes—Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Obama, and Betty Ford—is a tantalizing project for prestige TV. With well-researched scripts and compelling production design, such a concept could put a face to the larger history of women in America, from the beginning of the 20th century up until the present. You’d struggle to find more distinguished lead actors than Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson, or a stronger supporting cast than one that includes Kiefer Sutherland, Dakota Fanning, Ellen Burstyn, Judy Greer, and Lily Rabe.
It would be hard to overstate how much Showtime’s The First LadyThese advantages are wasted in ‘The First Lady’, which premiered April 17th. Given the opportunity to complicate the textbook version of American history, look beyond the sexist media narratives of each First Lady’s day, and bind together the legacies of three of the past century’s most important women, first-time creator Aaron Cooley and showrunner Cathy Schulman (a producer of the preachy 2006 Oscar winner CrashThe well-trod surface is what you should be sticking to. Two of the three stars—Anderson as Roosevelt and Davis as Obama—are egregiously miscast. Series director Susanne Bier is a highly skilled Danish filmmaker, whose output has ranged from the shiny fun of The Night ManagerTo the shiny meh of The Undoing The sheer absurdity of Bird BoxThe film fails to make it worth the effort.
Viola Davis portrays Michelle Obama in FIRST LADY
Jackson Lee Davis/SHOWTIME
There’s a fair amount of confusion baked into the show’s structure. Instead of telling each First Lady’s story in turn, it jumps between key moments in their respective political and personal lives, juxtaposing story lines in ways that sometimes sync up thematically and sometimes don’t. (In one episode, as Michelle faces bigotry and Eleanor crusades against it, Pfeiffer’s Betty transitions from popular FLOTUS to lonely Palm Springs party girl.) Too often, the camera cuts away from a vignette just as it’s about to get messy, never to return. There is a chronological element to the series, which opens by tracing each woman’s path to the White House and closes with a look at what they did after leaving Washington, but it also frequently returns to the First Ladies’ respective youths, in scenes where they’re portrayed by younger actors.
It would be easier to transition between the eras. But they wouldn’t solve the show’s core problem: that it doesn’t illuminate much about its venerable subjects because the cast isn’t right and the writing demonstrates minimal insight into the protagonists’ inner lives or personal relationships. Anderson can be wonderful in the right role—which is to say, a lively role—whether it’s The X-Files’ iconic Scully or the unfiltered sex-therapist mom in The Sex Education. So I’m not sure why she keeps turning up, lips puckered as though she’s tasting a lemon, to play mirthless grand dames of politics. Unfortunately her Eleanor, like Margaret Thatcher’s Margaret Thatcher, is equally stodgy. The Crown. These are just a few of the questions: Was Olivia Colman too busy playing Roosevelt?
Gillian Anderson plays Eleanor Roosevelt on THE FIRST LADY
Davis, who is considered one of the best actors of her generation has the reverse problem. She masters Michelle’s speech patterns and mannerisms but has too inherently formal a manner to telegraph her character’s disarming warmth. O-T Fagbenle was also mistakenly paired Davis.The Handmaid’s Tale), a relatively chill presence who’s more than 15 years her junior, as Barack. When they’re together, POTUS reads as a bit of a twerp. The events surrounding the Obama sections occurred recently enough to make it seem uncanny that there is a relationship between the real footage and the reenactments.
Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford is the only lead performance that feels like more than an impression. A masterly portrayer of women with demons who’s in the midst of a marvelous second act, she gives us a strong, principled yet serially wounded First Lady who spends decades trying to regain the sense of purpose she felt as a young dancer. She is rooted in an unhealthy body which constantly betrays her conscious will. This character is a perfect candidate for melodrama. But Pfeiffer tempers Betty’s extreme highs and lows with intelligence, humor, and empathy. Her segments feel more purposeful because of these choices than the rest.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Betty Ford, in THE FIRST LADY
They also throw into relief the shoddiness of the show’s overall construction. An epic drama about real political history should make every story feel authentic to its time. Contemporary buzzwords continue to infiltrate 20th century vernacular. We hear about “racial justice” in the 1930s, “mental health awareness” in the ’70s, “culture fit” in the ’80s. While the series fails to make meaningful connections between each heroine’s antagonists (Franklin’s mother for Eleanor, Rahm Emanuel for Michelle, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld for Betty) it makes their male counterparts interchangeable, essentially framing FDR (Sutherland), Ford (Aaron Eckhart), and Obama as the same spineless, distracted, wishy-washy guy.
To the extent that there’s an overarching argument here, as there always should be in historical fiction, it’s that Mrs. Roosevelt, Mrs. Ford, and Mrs. Obama served as the consciences of their husbands’ administrations, even as those presidents and their aides sought to limit each woman’s influence. The ladies’ moral purity tempers the men’s ambition. Unfortunately, this takeaway is as gender-essentialist as it is trite. As a result, the show doesn’t even succeed as hagiography. These women are portrayed as American saints by being bold, strange, brilliant and troubled. The First LadyIt takes away the essence of their compelling characters: Humanity.
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