‘The First Lady’ turns three compelling women into Emmy baits

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The new East Wing drama, “The First Lady”, exists to illustrate a fact that most of us know intuitively: The women who are asked to play hostess, decorator, fashion designer and advocates for non-controversial causes as part of each administration’s political theater, tends to be much more interesting and complicated than the well-groomed images they project.

This is certainly the case for the trio of FLOTUSes, whose lives are dramatized by the 10-part debut season of Showtime’s anthology series: Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). Well-behaved women rarely write history, says Second Wave – a maxim that extends to the White House.

The second reason why “The First Lady” exists is to gain price attention. So even though it pays homage to women who break the mold, the show itself is deeply – and discouragingly – conventional. Created by Aaron Cooley, the decade-long drama tries to inspire, while it, sometimes morbidly, lingers on tragedy via countless flashbacks, and never once seriously questions an office that has not only come under increasing fire for its retrograde foundation, but often makes its own protagonists. desperately unhappy. Then there is the unconvincing thesis of the series, which states in a letter from the fictionalized Betty to Michelle: “First ladies and their teams are often the vanguard of social progress in this country” – a liberal fantasy that deliberately errs in the anomalies such as norms.

Maybe it’s because Betty Ford’s story is the least known of the three that her scenes are the most compelling. Pfeiffer has a stiff stiffness and offers the most flashy performance – some would consider it the most backstage-chewing – as a disappointed former dancer overwhelmed by loneliness, motherhood and a spiral addiction to alcohol and painkillers in her husband Geralds (Aaron Eckhart ) almost constant. absence. A moderate Republican who supports abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment and pushes her lunch-eating colleagues to read “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty is repeatedly chastised for her openness – including her taboo-breaking discussions about her breast cancer – by Gerald’s wrong helpers , Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield) and Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil), a Tweedledee and Tweedledum in pants. The reminder of a pre-Reagan GOP boasting of ideological overlap with the Democrats is welcome, as are the revisits to the national conversation on women’s health that the real Ford helped facilitate.

Clear dentures and an unfortunate way of reversing Anderson – though less strenuous than her awkward pantomime of Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown” – distract from a rather brave paraphrase of Eleanor Roosevelt, at least for a mainstream TV series. “The First Lady” foreshadows Eleanor’s exalted silver spoon with several scenes of her younger self (played by Eliza Scanlen) comforted by her uncle and former president Theodore (Jeremy Bobb). The series is also not shy about the distancing Eleanor showed her own family, especially her six children, while she tirelessly campaigned on behalf of the miserable and oppressed. (Her preference for crowds and ideological allies over her blood relations may, in fact, be her most presidential quality.)

Cinemas have for decades discussed the nature of Eleanor Roosevelt’s close friendship with groundbreaking reporter Lorena Hickok (Lily Rabe), a well-known lesbian. “The First Lady” exhibits their relationship as romantic and physically intimate – a midway in flower for Eleanor, who considers her husband Franklin (Kiefer Sutherland) closer to a “teammate” than a traditional spouse after her proper mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) pressures them to stay together after a particularly painful betrayal on his part. But the steadfast respect that Franklin shows his wife, not portrayed quite convincingly, makes their marriage of convenience surprisingly modern, even easy to root out. In contrast, Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship feels slack and signed, with Anderson and Rabe sharing less than a nanogram of chemistry.

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In “The First Lady”, Eleanor fights segregation, secures asylum for dozens of World War II refugees and plays a major role in the formation of the UN. A few decades later, Betty also defies the conventions of upper-class femininity by talking about her mastectomy and struggling with addiction. But Michelle Obama’s legacy has yet to be fully written, which may be why, despite Davis’ careful mimicry of her character’s tics and movements, her scenes feel the slightest consequence.

Eleanor and Betty eventually win hearts and minds by testing the limits of a role they have never wanted. The series correctly notes that Michelle is under much greater control than her white predecessors; a rare misstep on the campaign trail in 2008 instantly gets the label “angry black woman” stuck on her. “The First Lady” is compelling enough as it crosses the cracks in the marriage between “Meesh”, as she is called by her loved ones, and Barack (OT Fagbenle) – in Chicago she finds his policy too idealistic and in the Oval Office, his tactics everything too careful. There are also tempting hints that their approaches to blackness are often different; when they meet, she is a child from the South Side with a bone-deep familiarity with its injustices while writing a book that tells of her search for her identity.

But much of today’s Michelle’s plot lines are about how she is told to tame herself, most often by her husband’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (Michael Aronov) – a realistic scenario, but not exactly captivating television. Jayme Lawson steals every scene she’s in as the younger Michelle, but even in a show filled with extraneous events like this, we do not have to watch the future first lady be discouraged from applying to Princeton by a prejudiced supervisor or taking error. for a maid of mother to a fellow student. Michelle Obama’s time in the White House simply needs more time before it can be told satisfactorily; she has decades yet to finish her story.

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“The First Lady” owes its eminent sight to its episodic structure, which organizes every hour by theme: how they fell in love with their husbands, dealt with the day’s pressing problems, and finally returned to civilian life. (After waiting like a first lady for so long, Eleanor, for example, is confused about the kitchen appliances in the house she moves into after Franklin’s death.) The review between the women underscores their similarities, especially in seeing their hopes for a life beyond their husbands’ ambitions shattered – and for Eleanor and Michelle, a more serious position in the White House was never considered despite their amazing talents and wealth of knowledge.

That is the central paradox of our veneration for first ladies: a good job despite the fact that we never want the responsibility – the worship of the wife’s self-sacrifice. (If a theoretical first lady admitted to coveting the role, she would immediately be called a Lady Macbeth.) One has to wonder how much longer we have to wait until female politicians – women who want more direct access to power and influence, rather than to channel their desires through an important man – are, on the whole, as beloved as first ladies.

Despite all the lavish production values, Emmy-enticing performances and quasi-feminist cheerleading in a series like “The First Lady”, there is something persistently vicious about a series premise that, rather than interrogating a brutal system, greets the few women, who has endured it. by secreting exceptions for themselves. But again, what’s more American than that?

The first lady (one hour) premieres Sunday at 21 on Showtime.

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