As Chicago lawyer Michelle Obama becomes First Lady Michelle Obama in Showtime’s latest drama, her predecessor Laura Bush offers some advice and comfort. “You might think you have nothing in common with First Ladies before you,” Laura tells her, “[but] believe me when I say that we all felt that way. ” about three first ladies who share nothing but living in the White House (the strangest thing, a mile).
There’s Michelle, played by Viola Davis with Obama’s well-known cadence (if also some very exaggerated stenciled crescent eyebrows). In the timeline that comes closest to work is Betty Ford, embodied by a particularly sharp Michelle Pfeiffer. Rounding out the cast is Gillian Anderson’s Eleanor Roosevelt, whose defining characteristics are a distracting set of false teeth. Davis, Pfeiffer and Anderson’s high-watt trifecta provide an undeniably impressive lineup. But not even those 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 multiple Wikipedia pages at once.
From creator Aaron Cooley’s scattered pilot onwards, each episode shifts between its timelines seemingly randomly. Sometimes a unifying theme like “marriage is difficult” or “gay rights?” (question mark intentionally) presents itself. More often than not, the show’s haste to cover as much ground as possible, sometimes using archive news footage to explain it all, “The First Lady” feels less like a cohesive drama than a beautifully produced slide show (“Eleanor Roosevelt”: this is your life! “). It does not even necessarily go in chronological order, which means that some relationships – like the one between Michelle and Chief of Staff Susan Sher (Kate Mulgrew) – get significant beats before their origins have even been established.
A welcome exception is the third episode, which consists exclusively of flashbacks to each woman’s younger self – played by the solid trio of Jayme Lawson (Michelle), Eliza Scanlen (Eleanor) and Kristine Froseth (Betty) – who meet their eventual husbands, the game in their respective present days by OT Fagbenle (Barack Obama), Kiefer Sutherland (Franklin D. Roosevelt) and Aaron Eckhart (Gerald Ford). This chapter has at least the distinction of a clear and recognizable review that ties all three stories together with ease.
For the most part, however, the series’ older generation of actors struggle to bring their characters to a credible life, despite being demonstrably capable of it throughout their careers. Anderson in particular can not quite find her way around those teeth, let alone her own bid for Eleanor Roosevelt. (The closest she comes is when she faces Lily Rabe as Eleanor’s longtime companion, though she realizes 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 they portray Obama in their private scenes as couples. But neither they nor the scripts can completely decide how to grab their scenes beyond the domestic bubble, and therefore they often end up failing to make eye impressions.
The most successful aspect of “The First Lady,” and the one that raises the question of why this first season did not just belong to her in the first place, is Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford. When a woman so suddenly threw herself into the role that she could barely breathe before throwing her first state dinner, Pfeiffer immediately clicks into Betty’s confused amusement, private pain, and finally determination to do something really good. Her bow is not immune to any stupidity, as her sparring with the schematic Ford advisers Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil) and Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield) proves. But where Michelle and Eleanor segments stumble in the pursuit of clarity, Betty gives them a much more recognizable drive and spark. Pfeiffer deserved better than for her performance to be chopped up into so many moving pieces, but it is her merit that she gets the most out of what she gets.
Despite Laura Bush’s insistence that Michelle might find something in common with the women who came before her, “The First Lady” struggles to do the same for her three lead roles. When you see the series try to make sense of itself, it’s tempting to think it started as three separate Michelle, Betty, and Eleanor shows before “The First Lady” merged them into one. So if you’re wondering why these three specific women are the show’s focal points… yes, the same.
In recent years, TVs have flooded with star-studded re-imaginings of formerly significant women. “Mrs. America” (2020) welcomed Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) and the clash of feminism with the growing conservative movement; “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (2021) cast Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein to dive deeper into Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky’s twisted relationship and all its reverberations: the latest season of “The Crown” introduced Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Anderson, once again) as twin ghosts in a divided England, all depicting extremely different women , but still found some reason to tell their stories at the same time. “The First Lady”, despite its wide umbrella of a title, rarely does.
As if trying to fix it as quickly as possible, each episode’s opening lyrics – filled with news footage of First Ladies and brave women taking care of business – end up in the image of three women’s fists (two white, one black) defiantly lifted in the air . And yet, this gesture, seemingly an attempt at some imaginary unity between the generations, inspires more annoyance than pride. Eleanor, Betty and Michelle all pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a first lady, but they each did so in vastly different ways and for completely different reasons. Squeezing their stories together not only creates confusing television, but does them all a disservice in the process.
“The First Lady” premieres Sunday, April 17 at 9 p.m.