When a TV Show Undermines the People It’s Trying to Celebrate
The First Lady tries to honor three underappreciated political spouses. Instead, it blends their life stories and reduces them all.
The role of the first lady has long been ill-defined. Until recently, she was the most prominent and therefore scrutinized woman in the White House, yet her position comes with murky expectations. Modern first ladies tend to manage a staff and champion carefully chosen causes, but their duties aren’t formally circumscribed. How many duties are too many? How many are not enough?
Showtime’s The First Lady purports to answer those questions. With 10 hour-long episodes and an ensemble of elite actors, the new weekly series could have been not only an opportunity to showcase women who rarely lead historical dramas, but also a chance to illuminate how the vagueness of their unelected post belies a unique soft power. Yet The First Lady seeks to do little but superficially celebrate its subjects. Consequently—and ironically—it undermines each woman’s individuality, muddying the role it set out to clarify and repeating the history it’s trying to correct.
The problem begins with the show’s structure. Rather than follow a single presidential spouse, the series tracks three: Michelle Obama (played by Viola Davis, who’s also an executive producer), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). Directed by Susanne Bier (The Undoing), each episode pinballs across three timelines, transitioning from one first lady’s experience to the next—an attempt, Bier and the showrunner Cathy Schulman have explained, to underline common themes across their tenures. Yes, each was a wife, a mother, and a trailblazer of her time. But beyond that, the connections stressed by The First Lady are tenuous, awkward, and sometimes nonsensical: An upcoming episode weaves scenes of Michelle advocating for same-sex marriage with those of Eleanor in bed with her female lover. Is the show trying to say that Michelle’s support for queer couples means she would have supported Eleanor multiple decades before? And if so, so what?
Focusing so much on the women’s superficial similarities hampers the show’s ability to fully examine any single character. Instead, it zooms through career highlights, relying on motivational-poster-worthy dialogue, and making obvious, if not insulting, parallels. Michelle’s pursuit of health-care reform is explained in a perfunctory flashback to her father’s inadequate hospital treatment; later in the same episode, her arc is braided with that of Betty nursing a shoulder injury while looking after her children. The audience doesn’t gain any meaningful understanding of the first ladies; if anything, the women are reduced to the stereotypical position of family caregiver.
The cast is left to do the unenviable heavy lifting of finding any depth in their roles. Among the trio of A-listers, Pfeiffer as Betty Ford fares best, though her beautifully understated performance of personal turmoil only emphasizes the series’ flaws. Davis’s and Anderson’s work feels like caricature in comparison, not helped by the show’s constant temporal shuffling, which leaves the actors delivering rote mimicry of their real-life counterparts. This splicing of three biopics into one might give viewers the uncomfortable sense that the show’s creators thought none of these women was interesting enough to warrant her own series.
The First Lady is a mediocre series nevertheless destined to make some noise for its starry cast come next awards season. As an attempt to finally spotlight a set of historically marginalized figures, it is a stark example of how limiting such noble intentions can be. A show whose only goal is to represent the underrepresented can too easily lead to trite, uninspiring mythmaking. The First Lady is a barely thematically connected and carelessly staged summary of three fascinating figures. All of them deserved better.