This show surprised me in that it wasn’t an anthology show per se about the women who have occupied the role of First Lady in the US. The show is absolutely about those women, but what I hadn’t understood about the show is that their respective stories would be interwoven throughout each episode.
What didn’t surprise me about the show is absolutely everything else. This is a complete, by the numbers story showing viewers the individual challenges, stresses, and burden placed on each of these women as they supported their husbands - the most powerful man in the free world.
In the show we are introduced to three First Ladies, all put upon women feeling the weight of their responsibilities. Michelle Obama. Put upon. Eleanor Roosevelt. Put upon. Betty Ford. Put upon.
It may be the weight of just knowing so much about her and her being so vocal about not being all that enthused about Barrack Obama running for President, but Michelle Obama fares the worst. Viola Davis is perfectly okay in the role, but Michelle isn’t seen to do much other than internalise being frustrated and upset by the situation she has found herself in. There’s no other shade to the character and Davis has been better on-screen elsewhere.
Gillian Anderson fares a bit better as Eleanor Roosevelt. She is a bit more interesting only because of the complexity of her situation. She wasn’t just the First Lady as much as she was also a physical caregiver to her President husband - a man who fell victim to Polio. We’ve seen Anderson in period garb a number of times, most recently playing Thatcher in The Crown and it feels like she is able to slide into roles like this like a glove. A strong performance, but it just feels so familiar.
The only real spark I found in the show was following Michelle Pfeiffer who is outstanding as Betty Ford. I’d have been very happy if this was a show that only spent time with Mrs Ford - she’s a compelling character to spend time with, watching her struggle with the responsibilities of raising a family with such an absent husband for her life, but also her well documented struggles with drink. A tonic that seems like it was there to help her deal with the loneliness.
This is absolutely a show produced for the modern moment. There’s an interest in telling the stories of important women and the struggles they dealt with as women in these situations. An audience there for that will eat up this show entirely. But, I’m looking for more than that surface-level of theatrics and two of the three biopics on offer here just felt too run of the mill to really invest myself too heavily. Come for the performances. Stay for Betty Ford - an interesting, textured character who really deserves a greater platform than offered here.
The First Lady is screening now on Showtime in the US and on Paramount+ in Australia.
[This review was written for the Screen Watching podcast, available wherever you find your favourite podcasts.]