As Chicago lawyer Michelle Obama becomes First Lady Michelle Obama in the latest drama from Showtime, her predecessor Laura Bush offers some advice and comfort. “You might think you have nothing in common with the First Ladies before you,” Laura tells her, “[but] trust me when I say that we all felt this way. ” the stories tackled by three First Ladies who do not share much beyond the fact of living in the White House (oddly, by a mile).
There’s Michelle, played by Viola Davis with Obama’s familiar cadence (as well as some very exaggeratedly stenciled half moon eyebrows). In the timeline that comes closest to working out is Betty Ford, pictured by a particularly sharp Michelle Pfeiffer. To complete the cast is Eleanor Roosevelt of Gillian Anderson, whose defining character is a distracting set of false teeth. The high wattage trifecta of Davis, Pfeiffer and Anderson provides an undeniably impressive lineup. But not even they, nor showrunner Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) or director Susanne Bier (“The Undoing”), can make up for the fact that the series often feels like a dramatization of several Wikipedia pages at once.
From creator Aaron Cooley’s scattered pilot onwards, each episode alternates between its timelines seemingly randomly. Sometimes a unifying theme such as “marriage is difficult” or “gay rights?” (question mark intentionally) presents him. More often than not, the show’s rush to cover as much ground as possible, sometimes using archival material to express it all, makes “The First Lady” less of a cohesive drama than a beautifully produced slideshow (“Eleanor Roosevelt”): this is your life! “). It does not even necessarily go in chronological order, which means that some relationships – such as those between Michelle and Chief of Staff Susan Sher (Kate Mulgrew) – get important beats before their origins are fully established.
A welcome exception is the third episode, which consists entirely of flashbacks to every woman’s younger self – played by the solid trio of Jayme Lawson (Michelle), Eliza Scanlen (Eleanor), and Kristine Froseth (Betty) – Meet Her final men, played in their respective present days by OT Fagbenle (Barack Obama), Kiefer Sutherland (Franklin D. Roosevelt), and Aaron Eckhart (Gerald Ford). This chapter at least has the distinction of a clear and recognizable passage that brings all three stories together with ease.
For the most part, however, the older generation of actors of the show strive to bring their characters to a believable life, despite being demonstrably capable of doing so throughout their careers. Anderson in particular can not find her way around those teeth, let alone her own opinion of Eleanor Roosevelt. (The closest she comes is as Lily Rabe versus Lily Rabe as Eleanor’s longtime companion, though realizing that Rabe plays the formidable butch icon Lorena “Hick” Hickok just raises more questions about the casting process.) Davis and Fagbenle have their moments , especially when portraying the Obamas in their private scenes as a couple. But neither they nor the scripts can fully decide how to approach their scenes outside of that domestic bubble, and so they often end up on the standard to see impressions.
The most successful aspect of “The First Lady”, and the one that raises the question of why this first season did not belong to her alone, is Betty Ford of Pfeiffer. When a woman so suddenly stumbles into the role that she could barely breathe before she throws her first State dinner, Pfeiffer immediately clicks into Betty’s baffled amusement, private pain, and final decisions to do something really good. Her bow is not immune to some folly, as her sparring with rogue Ford advisers Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil) and Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield) proves. But where the segments of Michelle and Eleanor stumble in the pursuit of clarity, the Betty have a much more recognizable drive and spark. Pfeiffer deserves better than for her performances to cut into so many moving pieces, but it is to her credit that she makes the most of what she gets.
Otherwise, despite Laura Bush’s insistence that Michelle find something in common with the women who came before her, “The First Lady” struggles to do the same for her three leads. If you watch the series trying to make sense of itself, it’s tempting to believe that it started as three separate Michelle, Betty and Eleanor shows before “The First Lady” hit them in one. So if you’re wondering why these three specific women are the show’s focal points … well, the same.
In recent years, TVs have been flooded with stellar portraits of important women in the past. “Mrs. America” (2020) took Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) and the clash of feminism with the emerging conservative movement; “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (2021) cast Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein to dive deeper into ‘ the twisted relationship of Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky, and all their reverberations; the most recent season of “The Crown” introduced Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Anderson, again) as twin tracks of a divided England. extremely different women, but still found some reason to tell their stories at the same time. “The First Lady,” despite its broad umbrella of a title, rarely does.
If you try to fix it as quickly as possible, the opening credits of each episode – full of First Ladies news stories and brave women taking care of their affairs – end up in the image of three female fists (two white, one black) challenging in the loft. . And yet this gesture, apparently an attempt at some imaginary intergenerational unity, inspires more annoyance than pride. Eleanor, Betty, and Michelle all push the boundaries of what it means to be a First Lady, but they each did so in very different ways and for completely different reasons. Putting their stories together not only makes for a confusing television, but does them all a disadvantage in the process.
“The First Lady” premieres on Sunday, April 17 at 9 p.m.