The American first lady occupies a distinct place in our collective consciousness. She can be a fashion icon or simple dresser, an activist or a hostess, a celebrity or a historical footnote. She might end up a presidential candidate or adamant about leaving politics behind once her spouse exits the office.
Showtime’s stylish, star-packed series “The First Lady” (premiering Sunday, 9 EDT/PDT, ★★½ out of four) aims to dig deeply into the inner lives of three of American history’s most prominent presidents’ wives – Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). With gorgeous period detail, meticulous performances and familiar historical buzzwords and events, “First Lady” checks a lot of boxes for fans of this kind of glossy, highbrow drama.
However, what holds “First Lady” back is its focus on three first ladies rather than one, with conflicting stories that compete for our attention. Sure, the writers draw thematic connections, and each marquee actress does her real-life counterpart justice, but each episode feels like it’s teasing the viewer. Just when Roosevelt’s story gets gripping as she confronts her husband over his infidelity, the series abruptly pivots to the Obamas having an argument about Barack’s political career in 2001. Sure, it’s two shaky moments in two marriages, but there is the sense that the Roosevelts weren’t quite done with the scene by the time the Obamas show up. It’s more historical whiplash than historical commentary.
So many individual scenes are engrossing and superbly acted, but they’re often undercut by the time jumping and editing. There’s never quite enough from any one first lady, which leaves a sense of disappointment. It’s unfortunately a show that is lesser than the sum of its Emmy- and Oscar-winning parts. “First Lady” opens with each woman being painted for their official White House portrait (and yes, Davis wears a recreation of Obama’s iconic black and white gown) and then moves around freely in the chronology of their lives over the course of the 10-episode season. The major moments are all covered: Younger versions of all three women meet their pre-presidential husbands; Ford seriously injures her shoulder and starts pain medication; Obama is fitted for her Inaugural ball gown; and Roosevelt helps her husband write his inaugural speech. All the time jumping and protagonist-swapping can make the episodes feel long and choppy.
But even when the structure sometimes lets it down, the draw of “First Lady” is the acting. In addition to the three towering actresses, the cast includes Kiefer Sutherland as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford and O-T Fagbenle (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Black Widow”) as Barack Obama.