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First Ladies Deserve Better Than The First Lady

The role of the first lady has long been ill defined. Until recently she was the most prominent and therefore scrutinized woman in the White House yet her position comes with murky expectations. Modern first ladies tend to manage a staff and champion carefully chosen causes but their duties arent formally circumscribed. How many duties are too many? How many are not enough?Showtimes The First Lady purports to answer those questions. With 10 hour long episodes and an ensemble of elite actors the new weekly series could have been not only an opportunity to showcase women who rarely lead historical dramas but also a chance to illuminate how the vagueness of their unelected post belies a unique soft power. Yet The First Lady seeks to do little but superficially celebrate its subjects. Consequently and ironically it undermines each womans individuality muddying the role it set out to clarify and repeating the history its trying to correct.

The problem begins with the shows structure. Rather than follow a single presidential spouse the series tracks three Michelle Obama played by Viola Davis whos also an executive producer Betty Ford Michelle Pfeiffer and Eleanor Roosevelt Gillian Anderson. Directed by Susanne Bier The Undoing each episode pinballs across three timelines transitioning from one first ladys experience to the next an attempt Bier and the showrunner Cathy Schulman have explained to underline common themes across their tenures. Yes each was a wife a mother and a trailblazer of her time. But beyond that the connections stressed by The First Lady are tenuous awkward and sometimes nonsensical An upcoming episode weaves scenes of Michelle advocating for same sex marriage with those of Eleanor in bed with her female lover. Is the show trying to say that Michelles support for queer couples means she would have supported Eleanor multiple decades before? And if so so what?

Focusing so much on the womens superficial similarities hampers the shows ability to fully examine any single character. Instead it zooms through career highlights relying on motivational poster worthy dialogue and making obvious if not insulting parallels. Michelles pursuit of health care reform is explained in a perfunctory flashback to her fathers inadequate hospital treatment later in the same episode her arc is braided with that of Betty nursing a shoulder injury while looking after her children. The audience doesnt gain any meaningful understanding of the first ladies if anything the women are reduced to the stereotypical position of family caregiver.

The cast is left to do the unenviable heavy lifting of finding any depth in their roles. Among the trio of A listers Pfeiffer as Betty Ford fares best though her beautifully understated performance of personal turmoil only emphasizes the series flaws. Daviss and Andersons work feels like caricature in comparison not helped by the shows constant temporal shuffling which leaves the actors delivering rote mimicry of their real life counterparts. This splicing of three biopics into one might give viewers the uncomfortable sense that the shows creators thought none of these women was interesting enough to warrant her own series.The First Lady is a mediocre series nevertheless destined to make some noise for its starry cast come next awards season. As an attempt to finally spotlight a set of historically marginalized figures it is a stark example of how limiting such noble intentions can be. A show whose only goal is to represent the underrepresented can too easily lead to trite uninspiring mythmaking. The First Lady is a barely thematically connected and carelessly staged summary of three fascinating figures. All of them deserved better.

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