What do Eleanor Roosevelt Betty Ford and Michelle Obama have in common? The title of Showtimes new anthology drama The First Lady offers the obvious answer to this question. The first episode attempts to draw deeper parallels beyond the man they are married to with mixed results. From the opening montage depicting each woman sitting for their official portrait it is clear the series is going to bounce between the three timelines and the whiplash sets in early. With heavy weights like Viola Davis Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson depicting each woman the desire to linger with each character increases and theres a strong sense each figure could headline their own series. The connecting tissue linking the three arcs can be boiled down to how they became the first lady a trio of distinct journeys. After the archival footage heavy opening credits Michelle Obama Davis is shown grappling with the symbolism of the place she will call home after the historic election victory in 2008. Davis has Michelle Obamas recognizable voice down and she arguably has the hardest job because of how familiar the audience is with Obamas cadence. Laura Bush Kathleen Garrett gives a tour of the East Wing and Michelle and the show makes a point of greeting the mostly Black staff. A painting depicting a slave is lingered on and showrunner Aaron Cooley is far from subtle in the points he hammers home throughout the pilot.
Our first glimpse of Betty Ford Pfeiffer in 1973 is carefree and full of foreshadowing. Harry Nilssons Coconut accompanies a playful daytime cocktail making session and this party for one is about to get rudely interrupted by a White House administration embroiled in scandal. Anyone with a sliver of knowledge about Bettys alcoholism will see this scene and every other booze laden moment as a red flag but her celebratory mood is because she will soon embark on a politics free life in the Palm Springs sunshine. Daughter Susan Dakota Fanning arrives home from school and makes a point of saying Thank God daddy is retiring as CBS anchor Walter Cronkite discusses the Republican corruption mess. Again its rather on the nose. So much for sunshine Betty later quips to her husband Gerry Aaron Eckhart as he is tapped to be Richard Nixons new vice president underscoring her reluctance to become the second lady.
Eleanor Roosevelts Anderson story begins in the decade before Franklins Kiefer Sutherland election win and in the hours before polio would make his bid for the presidency seem like a pipe dream. Eleanors story is the one that covers the most ground and it only adds to the scattered elements of the pilot. We see her as a young girl in 1892 at her mothers funeral as if we needed an explanation of her resilience. It also just makes sure viewers know Teddy Roosevelt is her uncle and she has long been surrounded by political greatness. By the time Eleanor gets to the White House in 1933 there is much to be done in fixing the financial crisis and high unemployment figures. Unfortunately there is no place for the new first lady beyond a title she refers to as her circumstance and not a job. It is clear that each woman is not inclined to lean into the cookie cutter expectations of this role.
Eleanor and Michelle share a drive to work whereas Betty feels like she has served her time as a political wife across 13 campaigns. They are bound by the love they have for their husbands and a reluctance to lose their identity when entering the White House. Michelle is also concerned that Barack O T Fagbenle will end up sharing the same fate as Martin Luther King Jr. Malcolm X and JFK the Secret Service detail does little to remove the image of Jackie Kennedys blood stained pink Chanel suit from her mind. Photographs of MLK and Malcolm X hang on the wall of Michelles Southside of Chicago childhood home and this imagery is another pointed production design choice. However this scene with her mother is one of the strongest and the lived in quality of this dynamic is evident from the moment Marian Regina Taylor steps onto the screen. Later when Michelle returns home to reconcile with her husband it is a reminder that Davis is an expert on screen crier as she repeats Okay I got you.The issue in this first episode isnt the performances which are all excellent rather its the slightness of each story that is allowed no room to breathe before bouncing to another era. Yes its early days but it isnt a good sign each section feels akin to reading a Wikipedia entry. Imagining the private lives of these extraordinary women is part of the appeal and yet its all so fleeting in this format.
Betty receives the strongest start and benefits from a more condensed timeline which depicts her attempts to show compassion and transparency. A speech at the Congressional Club highlights her willingness to discuss taboo topics like mental health. When she becomes the second lady Betty goes against the advice of Donald Rumsfeld Derek Cecil and is the only person from Nixons administration that attends Alberta Kings funeral. Pfeiffer runs the gamut between nervous and headstrong again begging the question why this anthology series couldnt dedicate a season to each woman. Thats why The First Ladys opener is a bit of a letdown. Director Susanne Bier does a solid job in capturing each storyline and the different color palettes to portray each time period are subtle. The supporting cast boasts several big names that dont overshadow the three leads and the use of archival footage adds an authenticity that doesnt pull focus. However there are other distractions such as Andersons false teeth and it takes a few beats in each scene to become accustomed once again. Its a bumpy start to the glittering new Showtime series and another challenge for the titular characters to overcome.