Who is the greatest First Lady?

Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, The Undoing) directs the entire series and gives each heroine’s story a subtly different look. The Roosevelt sections have the burnished glow of a period piece. The Obama years are crisp and vivid, like looking out of a window. The Ford sections have a pastel, 1970s colour palette.

Betty Ford, in the most dynamic of the stories, is presented as flawed but entirely sympathetic. Turning her personal tragedies into valuable public health issues, she may have made a difference in more American lives than any other first lady in history. With cringeworthy foreshadowing, the first instalment catches her mixing a cocktail at home, months before Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart) becomes Richard Nixon’s vice president. Over the years prescription pills for a pinched nerve add to her problems. But her strength comes through when, shortly after her husband becomes president, she insists on making her cancer diagnosis public, urging women to get mammograms at a time when cancer was often a word merely whispered.

In the White House, she fights for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and tangles with Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil), Ford’s chief of staff and Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield), Rumsfeld’s deputy, who try to keep her on the side lines. Pfeiffer’s looks in reaction to them are scathing. And when Betty’s family stages an intervention after the White House years, there is raw hurt on her face.  

Then there are the Obama sections. Oof. Davis scrunches up her face and contorts her mouth so often it becomes a distracting attempt at impersonation. The series depicts Michelle Obama’s career as a lawyer and an administrator doing community outreach at a Chicago hospital. But the show’s answer to the big question – what does a Princeton and Harvard-educated woman do when she’s asked to live in her husband’s shadow? – is to have the first lady hector the president on issues like gay rights and even race. You’d hardly know that Barack Obama (O-T Fagbenle) is a pretty intelligent, idealistic guy himself.

This Michelle tends to her White House kitchen garden, as she did in real life. Behind the scenes the fictional Michelle is constantly going into battle, with her husband’s Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel (Michael Aronov), and later with Hillary Clinton (Kate Burton), when Michelle is asked to campaign for her in 2020. Clinton appears briefly not as a model for a post-first lady career, but as a punching bag. Michelle angrily confronts Clinton face to face about things she said about her then-opponent, Barack, in the 2008 presidential campaign. This seems meant to make Michelle appear principled and tough-minded, but instead it makes her look politically naive and petulant.

The concept for the series is to have more seasons with different first ladies, and there are many less than obvious possibilities. In the early 19th Century, Dolly Madison was a famous hostess who helped President James Madison by bringing politicians of all parties to the White House. Rosalynn Carter, now 94, sat in on cabinet meetings and by all accounts was an important advisor to Jimmy Carter. Influence is not quite the same as power, though, a fact the show, in its determination to make a case for the first ladies, doesn’t always acknowledge. The real Michelle Obama has. As she wrote in her 2018 memoir, Becoming: “Tradition called for me to provide a gentle kind of light, flattering the president with my devotion, flattering the nation primarily by not challenging it.” She learned, though, how to use her platform to ‘”direct the American gaze” to her causes. If only the series were as smart as that.

The First Lady premieres in the US on Showtime on 17 April.


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