When it comes to films and television shows about US presidents, the First Ladies are often treated as an afterthought: supportive wives whose primary purpose is to bolster their husbands in times of hardship and doubt. Even their exhibit at the Smithsonian is pretty much limited to just their dresses. But they, almost universally, had so much more going on, so it’s admirable that Showtime’s The First Lady would attempt to tell their stories more explicitly. Unfortunately, in its decision to split the narrative between three different First Ladies, it isn’t able to do justice to any of these remarkable women.
Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) is the whip-smart, hyper-driven wife of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland), who helps engineer his rise to the White House through sheer force of will. But when Roosevelt finally becomes president in the midst of the Great Depression, Eleanor finds herself stifled by the lack of an official role in his administration. She’s not satisfied with the traditional responsibilities of the First Lady, forced to content herself with merely decorating the White House and other domestic duties when she longs to contribute something more substantive.
By contrast, Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) has no desire to be in the White House at all. She was preparing for her husband, Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart), to retire from the Senate so they could move to sunny Palm Springs when he was suddenly appointed to the vice presidency, taking Spiro Agnew’s place. From there, it wouldn’t be long before Nixon would resign in the wake of the Watergate scandal, putting the Fords in the precarious position of being President and First Lady despite never running for that office or, crucially, being elected to it. Betty reluctantly takes her place out of a sense of duty but soon finds an inner strength that will allow her to shape the role of First Lady in new ways.
And finally, there’s Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), who has to navigate her husband’s trailblazing yet inherently dangerous position as the first Black president in American history. This is to say nothing of the challenges of raising her daughters in a hostile political environment and setting aside her own thriving career as a high-level hospital administrator in Chicago. The criticisms from the press feel harsher and more personal in such a polarized landscape, and it will take Michelle every ounce of strength to rise above them.
If it sounds like a lot is going on in The First Lady, that’s because there is. It hurtles through time with reckless abandon, visiting different points on the timeline from Eleanor Roosevelt’s childhood in the late 1800s to the near-present day. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that it’s all a bit cluttered, trying to cover three First Ladies with such a broad scope that it loses sight of the overall story. There isn’t, perhaps, enough connective tissue between the three First Ladies to establish a fully coherent narrative. Indeed, it’s almost jarring when we hop between the stories, and we only do so reluctantly.
But maybe the biggest issue is how flat the Obama storyline falls compared to the other two. With Eleanor and Betty, enough time has passed that Anderson and Pfeiffer can make the roles their own – audiences are less intimately familiar with the two historical figures. But Michelle Obama, so iconic and fresh in the minds of viewers … well, her shoes aren’t the easiest to step into. Even the great Viola Davis feels like she’s just doing a cheap impersonation, and her performance is a pale imitation of the real thing.
When we watch the Obama sequences, it’s difficult not to begrudge them the valuable time spent here that could have been put to better use fleshing out the Ford and Roosevelt narratives. And for that matter, either one of those storylines undoubtedly has enough material to fill its own series. Why was it necessary to shove these three women together, especially without a clear throughline between their individual tenures in the White House? We can have dozens of films and TV shows depicting Franklin Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy, or Richard Nixon, but do these towering female leaders have to be crammed into one? It just doesn’t seem fair. Despite powerful performances from Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson, The First Lady minimizes the very historical figures it seeks to celebrate.
The First Lady is now airing on Showtime.