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'The First Lady' is far from perfect—but its lead performances make it worth watching

The First Lady, which interweaves the stories of three different occupants of the White House from three different eras, isn't the first scripted TV drama to give such political roles to very strong actresses – nor is it the best. Throughout TV's own long history, those would include ABC's Eleanor and Franklin in the 1970s, with Jane Alexander as Eleanor Roosevelt. And from the '80s, Blair Brown shined as Jackie Kennedy in NBC's Kennedy miniseries, as did Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln in NBC's Lincoln.

Showtime's new The First Lady miniseries has performers, and performances, every bit the equal of those. Each of these first ladies, in her own way, was proudly and defiantly progressive. Betty Ford is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Michelle Obama is played by Viola Davis. And Eleanor Roosevelt, a very vocal proponent of women's rights, is played by Gillian Anderson.

Show creator Aaron Cooley and director Susanne Bier have a consistent, but at times confusing, approach to the series. The First Lady jumps among the three narratives, but even those individual stories aren't told chronologically. In each of them, we leap back and forth, seeing the first ladies both as presidential wives and as girls and young women, played by younger actresses.

As the flashbacks and episodes pile up, so do the insights: the career paths not followed, the sometimes rocky romances, the long-time family dynamics. The downside is that the tales told here not only are needlessly complicated, but frustratingly obvious. At times, it's like a greatest achievements — and greatest missteps — compilation from three different presidential administrations. There is value, though, in juxtaposing how three prominent first ladies fought to find and use their voices.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in <em>The First Lady</em>
Murray Close / SHOWTIME
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in The First Lady

Even though I'm lukewarm about the structure of The First Lady, and wary of the depictions of some of the specific story lines, I'm also very, very enthusiastic about the lead performances. Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing as Betty Ford – simmering volcanically throughout, but finally exploding with rage and pain late in the series, as her family confronts her about her alcoholism. Gillian Anderson as Eleanor conveys so much even when saying nothing, and her scenes with her husband, Franklin – played surprisingly well by Kiefer Sutherland – range from touching to heartbreaking. As for Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, she persuasively embodies her true-life character, too.

As with all dramatizations of history, it's wise to take "based on fact" stories with several pillars of salt. But this miniseries is worth seeing because it does illustrate, through its various narratives and timelines, just how much progress we've made – and haven't made – regarding so many important issues. It's also worth seeing if just for its impressive leading roles. Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Viola Davis, as the first ladies, all get my vote – delivering three of the best TV performances of the year.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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