The main problem with The First Lady, the Showtime series focused on three past presidents’ wives – Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) – is evident in the first few seconds. The pilot, directed by The Night Manager’s Susanne Bier, opens with a camera flash sometime in the late 2010s. Michelle Obama sits for a photoshoot by the portraitist Amy Sherald in a pose familiar to most Americans – long, flowing gown with a geometric print, hair in loose waves, chin resting on the back of her hand. Asked by Obama why she didn’t want to paint her husband’s portrait, Sherald responds: “I don’t want to just paint the official. I am in interested in the real.”
That “real” is doing a lot of heavy lifting, both here and over the course of 10 episodes that struggle to find anything interesting, thorny, complicated – one might say authentic – under history-class pull-quotes, chaotic timeline shifts and ill-fitting accents. There’s the difficulty of narrativizing real events, particularly the very recent history portrayed by the Obama third of the show. The 2018 Sherald portrait is classic Obama iconography – stately yet inviting, intellectual, a delicate balance. That balance is off in The First Lady; as any viewer knows, it is not Michelle Obama in this famous pose but an actor pretzeling herself into the role. Suspension of disbelief is difficult when the character is a well-known figure, and nearly impossible with one as publicly vibrant, oft-photographed, and still relevant as Michelle Obama. It’s an awkward fit from the jump, and perhaps the best example of a recent-history performance that’s simply too soon.
Then there’s the issue of the show’s intent to offer a “revelatory reframing of American leadership” through the lens of three first ladies, to cast their personal struggles and triumphs – Roosevelt’s independent thinking in a man’s world, Ford’s groundbreaking candor on addiction and cancer, Obama’s resilience in the face of persistent racism – as historical anchors. There is absolutely a noble intent here to recenter women too often pushed to the margins of history, even with immense privilege. But noble intent in the name of women, even Obama, cannot recuse a series from cringeworthy dialogue, scrambled pacing and parody-level performances (Kiefer Sutherland as FDR is particularly bad; watching anyone play Barack Obama at this point feels like a less effective Key & Peele sketch, and this applies to O-T Fagbenle and Julian De Niro as older and younger Baracks).
The series, created by Aaron Cooley and executive-produced by Davis, toggles between melodramatic historical soap (for the early Roosevelt days, it’s The Gilded Age without any humor) 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.
It’s a shame, because the cast is unreasonably good for a show to be this much of a drag. To name a few actors under-served by this disappointing show besides Anderson, Pfeiffer and most especially Davis: Ellen Burstyn, as FDR’s overbearing socialite mother; Sharp Objects’s Eliza Scanlen as a young Eleanor, somehow with scenes only 15 years apart from an aged-up Anderson’s; Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford, little more than a distracted but devoted husband to Betty; Dakota Fanning as their daughter, Susan; Regina Taylor as Michelle’s mother, Marian; Jayme Lawson as young Michelle; and Kristine Froseth as young Betty. Davis is undoubtedly a national treasure, and her intent here seems spiritually aligned with both Obama the icon and Obama the real person, but the performance, especially against Fagbenle’s spottily accented Barack, is unsettling, never transcending the uncanniness of impersonation.
If there is a bright spot to The First Lady, it’s the attention paid to Betty Ford, the least known and least politically ambitious of the three. Though hemmed in by bold underlining of themes (Betty waves around a copy of the Feminine Mystique, because the 1960s), the Ford third at least hints at a woman with a real personality beneath all the famous references. Pfeiffer’s Ford is vulnerable, flawed, and fascinatingly uncalculated in public, though that performance is scattered among flashbacks and potentially complex dynamics – her friendship with her Black housekeeper, Clara, for example – reduced to a few conversations.
Such is the standard for The First Lady. You will find no objections from me to giving each of these real women a chance to fill a whole series with their dualities, tensions, and complications. But there’s very little of that realness here.