Controversy shouldn’t obscure the major flaw in “The Kennedys”: Not mangling history or sullying a famous family, but being painfully shallow and woefully bad. Aside from haircuts and intermittent accents, the eight-hour miniseries’ main preoccupation is sex — implied, but never really shown. For all that, given the abundance of trashy Kennedy-related fare through the years, it’s puzzling why History belatedly opted to punt on this high-profile scripted endeavor, which instead lands with a thud on ReelzChannel over six nights. Assembled by a team best known for “24,” the ticking clock here merely counts down how much longer till it’s over.
Frankly, if not for that pesky eight-hour running time, the producers might have missed an opportunity. After History backed out for reasons that remain murky, they dutifully made the rounds to other cable networks. Yet based on the camp factor, a theatrical release (one can only imagine sitting through some of these scenes with an audience) might have been the laugh-riot of the year.
The mini opens on election night in 1960, as Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) finally realizes his long-deferred dream of seeing a Kennedy become president. Based on the miniseries’ version, he harbored those aspirations for himself before scuttling them with imprudent statements during World War II, passing the baton to eldest son Joe Jr. and then, after Joe Jr.’s death, Jack.
Joe’s ruthless pursuit of power is the element to which producers Joel Surnow and Stephen Kronish keep returning. Both “24” veterans, they’re joined in this ham-handed exercise by several fellow alums, including director Jon Cassar and composer Sean Callery.
The first two hours flash back to earlier times in the family’s history. Then, with Jack (Greg Kinnear) in the White House, attention turns from one crisis to the next — the Bay of Pigs, Southern school integration, the Cuban Missile Crisis — all previously dramatized much better elsewhere.
Jack and Bobby (Barry Pepper) might come across as slightly wishy-washy given the sway their domineering father holds over them, but especially in the latter case (Bobby is depicted as a loyal husband, upset by Jack’s serial infidelity), the portrait is mostly sympathetic.
Jack wrestles with terrible back pain, but his Achilles heel is women. Like his father, a horrified J. Edgar Hoover (Enrico Colantoni, channeling Boris Karloff) fumes, Kennedy’s “need for sexual conquest borders on addiction” — much to the chagrin of long-suffering wife Jackie (Katie Holmes, who looks the part, and that’s about all).
As for the laughable moments, where to begin? There’s Joe casually nibbling on his secretary’s neck in front of his grown sons, Marilyn Monroe (Charlotte Sullivan) throwing herself at Bobby, Frank Sinatra (Chris Diamantopoulos) foolishly trying to play go-between for Joe and the Mob, and Joe’s priceless post-stroke exchange with wife Rose (Diana Hardcastle).
All told, the whole thing plays like a bad telenovela filtered through a “History for Dummies” text. Once Wilkinson’s bombastic Joe is effectively sidelined by the stroke, the final chapters become slow-motion versions of the assassinations, which stops the giggle factor, but only marginally improves the product.
Reelz is obviously hoping “The Kennedys” will put the “TV about movies” channel on the map, but once the initial hoopla subsides, it’s difficult to fathom how.
In the TV-movie world alone, there have surely been more scandalous and sordid depictions of the Kennedy clan. The biggest disgrace here, in fact, is less about politics than simply the talent and resources squandered on the scrap heap of History.