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The First Lady

Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson star in a new anthology series about the powerful women behind powerful men.

In 1987 when Dallas Hayden, then wife of Minister for Foreign Affairs, was arrested for shoplifting it made me reflect on how difficult life must be for the partner of a politician.

Is it almost like being someone and no-one at the same time? Expected to attend events, even giving the odd speech, yet never allowed to rock the boat? Charges against Mrs. Hayden were later dropped after medical evidence showed she frequently suffered “disorientation and memory loss”.

Which brings me to The First Lady, a new anthology series that goes behind the walls of the White House in three key eras.

And what a star cast this has attracted: Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Playing their husbands are O-T Fagbenle as President Barack Obama, Aaron Eckhart as President Gerald Ford and Kiefer Sutherland as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the big names don’t stop there: Ellen Burstyn, Dakota Fanning, Lily Rabe, Judy Greer, Kate Mulgrew, Clea DuVall and Aussies Eliza Scanlen, Rhys Wakefield.

All 3 eras are captured within single episodes, which makes for some fleeting, and sometimes frustrating, snapshots of each -especially as there can be flashbacks within those. But the rewards are also plenty.

Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) is determined to maintain a sense of family life for her two daughters, but also does not take kindly to the suggestion that she should take charge of a White House garden makeover. Her experience extends much further in health in Chicago and as the first Black First Lady, she’s not about to take a back seat. The domestic scenes with Barack feel wholly authentic thanks to a pitch perfect O-T Fagbenle.

“You have never wanted me in politics,” he admits.

Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) is thrust into the spotlight when Gerald Ford (Eckhart) replaces disgraced Richard Nixon (Paul Wilson). But in the ’70s she struggles to find her place in the new administration and is frequently depicted partaking of alcohol as a coping method.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt (Sutherland) is struck down by polio his mother (Burstyn) wants her son to retire. Not so his wife Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) whose belief in her husband stays true all the way to America’s highest office. But the progressive that she is, circa 1930, is to push for a job in her husband’s administration when a Chief of Staff expects her to play First Lady.

“That’s not a job Louie. That’s my circumstance,” she tells him.

The era is filled with newsreel (including Katie Couric, Walter Cronkite) and archival footage. There are historic moments, Oprah, Jesse Jackson, the death of Martin Luther King’s mother, visiting dignitaries, how the media portray Michelle Obama -even death threats.

The costumes all celebrate their respective eras, but Gillian Anderson returns to fake teeth as she did for Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. Betty Ford is frequently in dressing gown, but Michelle Obama is high hair and pearls -power dressing.

The three leading ladies are all star vehicles in these roles, the work could offer more depth than its obvious touchstones. It makes a strong case for powerful women behind powerful men, breaking down barriers, challenging taboos -even for the troubled Betty Ford.

“There is a Betty without Gerry Ford,” she says.

This could be an Emmy contender for performances (Anderson, Davis?) if not for script and is one of Paramount’s more broadly appealing offers so far.

Hillary Clinton for S2?

The First Lady premieres Monday April 18 on Paramount+.

6 Responses

      1. Free To Air is catering to mostly reality tv and it is getting worse each year,streaming services have all the great tv dramas and of course there are no ads which is the deal breaker.

      2. i wouldn’t hold my breath, ‘reality’ tv will always be cheaper for fta channels & probably rates better because people want to binge without ads on drama not watch it on fta with an added 20 mins of ads per hour

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