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The First Lady's attempt to squash the stories of three women together doesn't work

  • Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama -- "none of them is perfectly cast, in visual terms, but they nonetheless manage to more or less evoke the famous women they are playing, especially Pfeiffer," says Matthew Gilbert. "But the script of the series, which premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m., well that’s a different story. There are a number of big problems afoot, beginning with the very concept. Leaping among three time periods, each with its own series of flashbacks, and leaping among three very different women — it’s just too much of a dizzying whirlwind. It’s a stone that never stops skipping. The experiences of each of these women could fill an entire series, and yet here they are squashed together, with regular notations of time and place attempting to keep us grounded. Each one of the women is basically reduced to her Wikipedia page, as we leap from one expected moment to another. It’s the worst kind of biopic behavior, times three."


    • What holds The First Lady back is its focus on three first ladies rather than one, with conflicting stories that compete for our attention: "Sure, the writers draw thematic connections, and each marquee actress does her real-life counterpart justice, but each episode feels like it's teasing the viewer," says Kelly Lawler. "Just when Roosevelt's story gets gripping as she confronts her husband over his infidelity, the series abruptly pivots to the Obamas having an argument about Barack's political career in 2001. Sure, it's two shaky moments in two marriages, but there is the sense that the Roosevelts weren't quite done with the scene by the time the Obamas show up. It's more historical whiplash than historical commentary. So many individual scenes are engrossing and superbly acted, but they're often undercut by the time jumping and editing. There's never quite enough from any one first lady, which leaves a sense of disappointment. It's unfortunately a show that is lesser than the sum of its Emmy- and Oscar-winning parts."
    • Michelle Pfeiffer's Betty Ford runs away with the series: "Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Ford: One of these ladies is not quite like the others," says Gabrielle Bruney. "It’s not just because she’s the Republican on the list—Ford, who spent only 895 days in the White House, just doesn’t have the same prominence in American cultural memory as the history-making, two-term, and still-prominent Obama, or Roosevelt, who served for 12 years and reshaped the nation’s idea of what a president’s wife could accomplish. So it might come as a slight surprise that despite (or perhaps because of) her lower profile, Betty Ford’s story is by far the best part of Showtime’s new series, The First Lady." Eleanor Roosevelt has been endlessly portrayed, while Michelle Obama is regularly in the news. "Outside of the 1987 TV movie The Betty Ford Story—which isn’t exactly streaming on Netflix—Ford hasn’t become a pop culture staple," says Bruney. "This means that, unlike the other figures at the heart of The First Lady, the show has the opportunity to do something novel with Betty Ford: Introduce her to a new generation."
    • The First Lady falters due to a lack of ambition and a bafflingly frustrating structure: "Clearly hoping to be seen as an American version of the Netflix smash The Crown—this too is about the personal lives of public, political female figures, just on the other side of the pond—The First Lady has undeniable talent in every frame, including some of the best living actresses," says Brian Tallerico. "But the show is structured as if someone took a history book, cut out all the chapters, and then replaced them randomly back into it. At times, the writers try to draw connections between these events in these three very public lives, but they too often fail in that regard, leading to a show that never builds momentum."
    • Gillian Anderson and Viola Davis struggle a bit with their performances: "Davis’ Obama is eerily good at first, second, and third glance, but over the course of the entire first season, her commitment to some of Obama’s facial tics can seem a little forced, like she’s somehow thinking, 'I’ve got to purse my lips after every single line,'" says Marah Eakin. "Anderson’s Roosevelt, in contrast, is almost too different from the original source. Even with flat hair and dowdy clothes, Anderson is still more incandescent than awkward. While she does her best to capture Roosevelt’s oddly British affect, viewers might be left wondering how much of Anderson’s Roosevelt apes from both Anderson’s own light British affect and her recent portrayal of hard-line Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher."
    • The First Lady's structure doesn't work, but the performances are stellar: "Even though I'm lukewarm about the structure of The First Lady, and wary of the depictions of some of the specific story lines, I'm also very, very enthusiastic about the lead performances," says David Bianculli. "Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing as Betty Ford – simmering volcanically throughout, but finally exploding with rage and pain late in the series, as her family confronts her about her alcoholism. Gillian Anderson as Eleanor conveys so much even when saying nothing, and her scenes with her husband, Franklin – played surprisingly well by Kiefer Sutherland – range from touching to heartbreaking. As for Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, she persuasively embodies her true-life character, too."
    • The First Lady's themes are swathed in overt metaphors that have all the grace of a sledgehammer: "There are no organic moments, everything connects back to an element from these women’s pasts," says Kristen Lopez. "Every decision they make has little to do with right or wrong, or anything passing for a belief system, but has to do with a clear event involving their history (or their husband). These moments feel disingenuous at best and skeezy at worst, like Michelle Obama honoring slain Chicago teen Hadiya Pendleton because Obama met the teen during a White House tour, something that never happened. Earlier scenes connect Michelle’s fears of husband Barack (O-T Fagbenle) to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Though these fears are certainly based in fact, to compare them to that of King reminds viewers that the Obamas’ narrative in this series is only presented in the context of them being Black. Too often, the Obamas’ plot points involve race in ways that don’t feel fleshed out and feel like a narrative retread."
    • The writing is often clunky, obvious and filled with Big Picture Messaging: "Too many of the supporting characters are one-note caricatures, and at the end of this well-intentioned marathon, it feels as if we’ve being reading Wikipedia entries all day long," says Richard Roeper. "(No offense to Wikipedia, but that does NOT make for an immersive and enlightening viewing experience.) Nearly every biopic or limited dramatic series we see these days employs the technique of hopping back and forth along the timeline — sometimes to powerful dramatic effect, as events from the past inform what transpires in the present, but sometimes to the point of dizzying distraction. Unfortunately, the latter is often the case with The First Lady, which features scenes set in 2008, then 2006, then 1973, 1921, 1982, 1933, back to 1981, 1974, 1947, 1900, 2001, 1940, 2016; rinse and repeat. With the first-rate production values establishing the time period and the fine performances from the three leads, we’re often just getting settled into a dramatic arc when the story whiplashes back some 50 years, then forward 20 years, then all the way back to the 19th century."
    • The First Lady could have been great: "Such a premise could, with deeply researched scripts and evocative production design, put a compelling face on the broader history of women in America from the early 20th century through the present," says Judy Berman. "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 Lady, premiering April 17, squanders these advantages. 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 Crash) stick to the well-trod surface. Two of the three stars—Anderson as Roosevelt and Davis as Obama—are egregiously miscast. And series director Susanne Bier, an accomplished Danish filmmaker whose recent output ranges from the glossy fun of The Night Manager to the glossy meh of The Undoing to the sheer inanity of Bird Box, fails to salvage much worth watching."
    • The First Lady turns three compelling women into Emmy bait: "The First Lady owes its eminent watchability to its episodic structure, which organizes each hour by theme: how they fell in love with their husbands, dealt with the pressing issues of the day and, finally, adjusted back to civilian life," says Inkoo Kang. "(Having been waited on as the first lady for so long, Eleanor, for instance, is confounded by the kitchen appliances in the house she moves into after Franklin’s death.) The throughlines between the women emphasize their similarities, especially in seeing their hopes for a life outside their husbands’ ambitions dashed — and for Eleanor and Michelle, a more serious position in the White House never considered despite their prodigious talents and wealth of knowledge. That’s the central paradox of our veneration for first ladies: a job well done despite never wanting the responsibility — the cult of wifely self-sacrifice. (If a theoretical first lady confessed to coveting the role, she’d immediately be called a Lady Macbeth.) One has to wonder how much further we’ll have to wait until female politicians — women who want more direct access to power and influence, rather than channeling their desires through an important man — are, on the whole, as beloved as first ladies."
    • The First Lady toggles between melodramatic historical soap and staid hagiography: "Think a sanded down, flat version of Mrs America, the FX-on-Hulu limited series on the 1970s fight over the equal rights amendment that also spanned multiple timelines and an all-star female cast while adding new depth to famous real-life figures," says Adrian Horton. "It’s a shame, because the cast is unreasonably good for a show to be this much of a drag."
    • The First Lady is a woeful waste of three wonderful actresses: "It's a shame, because the cast is excellent," says Kristen Baldwin. "Davis and Anderson tackle their characters with typical polish and precision, and Pfeiffer gives an exquisitely controlled performance as Betty Ford, embodying the fun-loving First Lady's poise and witty charm as well as the emptiness those qualities masked. Lily Rabe recurs as Lorena Hickok, the pioneering lesbian journalist who formed a close (and possibly romantic) bond with Eleanor Roosevelt, and often stayed in a bedroom adjoining the First Lady's in the White House. (Seriously, how is this not its own show?) The actors behind the Presidents are suitably charismatic as well, despite being laden with the requisite hairpieces and prosthetics that come with this current wave of true-life TV."
    • Hair and costume go a long way on The First Lady: "Of the three, Pfeiffer fares the best because her interpretation feels the most human-scaled," says Nina Metz. "Both Anderson and Davis have a different sort of challenge, bearing the weight of women who have become icons. Interestingly, both end up rooting their performances in the set of their mouth — Anderson through false teeth, Davis through a pursed-lip expression. Pfeiffer, on the other hand, wears the characterization lightly, to her great advantage. Maybe it’s because, as portrayed here, Betty generally has a lighter approach overall despite (or maybe because of) her reliance on alcohol and pills. She wasn’t without her struggles — there’s a terrifically sharp confrontation late at night with her husband (Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford) about his decision to pardon Richard Nixon — but in terms of what it means to be a politician’s wife, Betty has a sense of humor about the absurdity of it all, compared to the more tension-filled ambitions and exasperations we see Eleanor and Michelle cycle through during their husbands’ tenure in office. There’s the issue of Anderson, who is miscast. Physically, she’s just wrong for the role at 5′3″ (Eleanor was 5′11″) and the bone structure of her face, though exquisite, doesn’t lend itself to shapeshifting into unglamorous figures; I felt the same about her turn as Margaret Thatcher on The Crown. She’s a tremendous actor, but these roles don’t play to her strengths and the resulting performances have the feel of parody."
    • Viola Davis is LeBron James and Michael Jordan in her role: "Every time she’s on screen, we expect greatness and she never fails to deliver," says Stephanie Holland. "It’s not like we ever forget we’re watching Viola, because she’s Viola, but at the same time her full commitment to the Forever First Lady’s movements and vocal cadence completely draw us into every aspect of her story. She becomes Michelle (no pun intended). The Oscar-winner is superb as she delivers a look at the Michelle we imagine very few people get to see. This is the private 'Southside of Chicago' Michelle, not the polished First Lady who has to be perfect at all times. Do I think the series is 100 percent accurate? No, it’s a TV show. However, I hope there are a few moments that are true, as I want to live in a world where Michelle Obama frequently drops f-bombs and had a bad-a** showdown with Hillary before she spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. You heard me right: there’s a scene where Michelle calls out Hillary for her casual white woman racism in the 2008 campaign. I desperately need that to be a thing that actually happened."
    • How The First Lady re-created more than 100 years of White House interiors: Production designer Tony Fanning and his colleague Todd Fjelsted worked with hundreds of people to replicate White House rooms dating from 1905 to 2017. "I have done the White House a number of times, and I have a full-time researcher," says Fanning. "I was involved with The West Wing and for a time doing the movie Lincoln and also Thirteen Days. I am a White House history buff. Our researcher is in touch with the White House Historical Association quite often, and we also got information from the National Archives and all the presidential libraries. I have a number of books on the White House and the two-volume William Seale book on the history of the White House. You can access a lot of the measurements and materials. It’s so well-documented. It’s not like we’re designing it, but we’re kind of replicating what existed." He adds: "We had to avoid some of the larger, more glamorous events because of covid. For that Ford state dinner, the scenes in the East Room were augmented (meaning people were added to the scene later), because we could not fill it up"
    • Viola Davis and Michelle Pfeiffer agree playing first ladies was "terrifying": “Once I realized the scope of this character, it was terrifying,” Pfeiffer says of joining the series, noting that she didn’t “want to let anyone down” with her portrayal. Davis adds that it was “absolutely terrifying” taking on someone like Obama, whom “everyone has ownership over.” Meanwhile, Gillian Anderson says: “It’s one of those jobs where you almost have to say yes before you think about it too much because if you think too much you might actually say no out of fear or being absolutely terrified."
    • Davis was particularly worried about what Michelle Obama will think: “I’ve had lots of ‘what was I thinking?’ moments by taking this part because of the enormity of it all,” says Davis. “There’s a lot of fear that I messed up my portrayal of Michelle Obama. She’s an icon. Everyone knows what she looks like and what she sounds like, so I am absolutely terrified. But I’m mostly terrified about what she will think. I don’t want to insult her and have her calling me. I gotta make the sister look good. I just hope that it lands with her.”

    TOPICS: The First Lady, Showtime, Aaron Cooley, Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susanne Bier, Viola Davis