The First Lady Fails to Escape Shadow of History | TV/Streaming

Any single one of these stories, with the same cast, could have made for an interesting mini-series, but the choice to jumble them up into a drama that jumps around chronologically more than “Tenet” is baffling. The result is a show that feels too consistently shallow, hitting highlights from the lives of its subjects instead of revealing how one incident impacted another or how these people grew or changed once they were in the public eye. It’s too content to tell us mostly what we already know about three of the most well-known first ladies in history—a better version would have tried to bring some less-recounted stories to life—even if the consistently strong performances keep it watchable.

Aaron Cooley created “The First Lady,” which jumbles together the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (series MVP Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). The series opens with a photographer with her lens on Obama, saying “I don’t want to just paint the official—I am interested in the real,” making the purpose of the series evident. This will be the “real” story of these famous figures, but the dialogue betrays this from the very beginning. Shallow writing has Michelle saying things like “I don’t think all women can adjust to this type of life” right from the beginning. “The First Lady” is constantly doing that—underlining the difficulties faced by its trio of power players instead of allowing them to play out. It’s a show wherein people are far too often expressing exactly what they’re thinking and feeling in a way to make sure all viewers repeatedly get the point, especially Emmy voters.

The writing often tries to link incidents in the lives of the three women, but then gets pulled away from that by a more noble attempt to let them be their own people. For example, the second episode details how Roosevelt was frustrated by not being given an actual Cabinet position and Obama faced similar drama when she was pushed off on a garden project instead of something that matched her intelligence. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of history knows that first ladies have often been pushed aside, even ones as brilliant as Roosevelt and Obama, and so it seems like a shallow connection. Similarly, the third episode takes place entirely in flashback and tells of the courtships that led them to the marriages that would partially define them, but it’s too self-defeating to again tie these ladies into how they met their husbands.

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