On Easter Sunday, Showtime aired its first episode of The First Lady, which is appropriate because it both nearly killed me and filled me with life anew. With heavyweights like Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, Gillian Anderson, Kiefer Sutherland, Ellyn Burstyn, and Aaron Eckhart in the cast, the production could have been extraordinary. Explosive, even. But instead, it was more like the Fourth of July, and by that, I mean the Fourth of July my dad almost set our house on fire after turning over a block of fireworks.
The based-on-true events series follows the lives of Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Davis, Pfeiffer, and Anderson, respectively) before and during their time as public servants. There appears, at least in the first two episodes, to be no real structure to the episodes. You just bop around an 80 year range, jumping from one random point in Michelle Obama’s life to an equally out-of-nowhere vignette from Eleanor Roosevelt’s. At first, I thought that these Time Traveler’s Wife-style shenanigans would be a hindrance to the viewing experience, but they soon become a gift; remain in one storyline for too long and how incredibly bad most of the performances are glares too obvious.
In the most recent timeline, Davis’s portrayal of Michelle Obama is downright offensive. It brings me no pleasure to admit such a thing, as Davis is, typically, an extraordinary actress. But for some reason, while playing one of the most beloved First Ladies of the United States in history, Davis decided to take every ounce of energy in her body and channel it into her face, resulting in a befuddling perma-pursed lip situation. Worried I was missing a nuance of Michelle’s I had never noticed, I consulted Twitter where it seems that no one watching the show could focus on anything else either. (It does not help that the makeup department clearly had a secret mission to kamikaze this series by use of eyebrow pencil and prosthetics.)
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Barack (played by .) The Handmaid’s Tale‘s OT Fagbenle) falls victim to a similarly overdone fate. While Fagbenle gives a decent Obama impression (note: impressions are not the same as acting), even that is hard to appreciate as you try and figure out why he has (1) really curious make-up?, (2) prosthetic ears that were potentially hand me downs from the upcoming Lord of Rings prequel. Not one to pile on the Obamas alone, The First Lady also had some peculiar choices lined up for Eleanor.
I have a theory—still workshopping, I’ll admit—that the spirit of Margaret Thatcher was so pissed off at Gillian Anderson for her spot-on portrayal of the Prime Minister in The Crown that she is now haunting her body as Anderson attempts to channel another historical icon. The Thatcher impression floats in and out as Anderson attempts to navigate speaking with an overbite so protrusive that it would make Jerri Blank ask, “Have you considered dental work?” Every scene is egregious in its own, beautiful, terrifying way. There’s also something to be said about how the majority of Kiefer Sutherland’s scenes as Franklin Delano Roosevelt are just him doing pratfalls, trying to pass it off as polio, but we are in too close of proximity to too many religious for me to comment further on that.
It’s not until Michelle Pfeiffer’s turn as Betty Ford do I realize that half the problem is the writing. Pfeiffer gives the only salvageable performance of the group, imbuing a few drops of believable humanity into Betty Ford. Which is no small feat considering that the opening shot we get of Ford is her dancing around her sunroom with a 2 pm cocktail, stepping all over magazines touting tropical vacations she’ll take once she’s done with public life. It comes off as wildly inappropriate. Ford was an alcoholic, not a moron.
Such shallow treatment is a core problem for the series. Despite having rich source material, The First Lady chooses the easiest path forward for all its characters. It’s misguided—to the point of being downright disrespectful—and I’ll be watching every episode because something so unwieldy is worthy of being marveled. Oh, to be alive during Viola’s (likely very short) flop era. What a sight to see Gillian Anderson failing so tremendously. Please, someone get Pfeiffer a wheelchair so that she may rest after carrying this entire project on her small frame.
I don’t know exactly what happened to The First Lady, but it made me fall back in love with terrible television. Tell your friends. Get a little drunk before every episode. And by God, send Michelle a note of condolence. When she went high, they hit rock bottom.
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