As Chicago lawyer Michelle Obama becomes First Lady Michelle Obama in Showtime’s newest drama, her predecessor Laura Bush offers some words of advice and comfort. “You may think you have nothing in common with the First Ladies before you,” Laura tells her, “[but] trust me when I say we all felt that way.” Here, Laura Bush acts as both some benign voice of reason (an odd choice) and also as a mouthpiece for “The First Lady” writ large (odder), which tackles the stories of three First Ladies who share little beyond the fact of living in the White House (oddest, by a mile).
There’s Michelle, played by Viola Davis with Obama’s familiar cadence (if also some very exaggerated stenciled half-moon eyebrows). In the timeline that comes closest to working is Betty Ford, embodied by an especially sharp Michelle Pfeiffer. Rounding out the cast is Gillian Anderson’s Eleanor Roosevelt, whose defining characteristic is a distracting set of false teeth. The high wattage trifecta of Davis, Pfeiffer, and Anderson makes for an undeniably impressive lineup. But not even they, nor showrunner Cathy Schulman (“Crash”) or director Susanne Bier (“The Undoing”), can make up for the fact that the series often feels like a dramatization of several Wikipedia pages all at once.
From creator Aaron Cooley’s scattered pilot onward, each episode toggles between its timelines seemingly at random. Occasionally, a unifying theme like “marriage is hard” or “gay rights?” (question mark intentional) presents itself. More often, the show’s rush to cover as much ground as possible, sometimes with the aid of archival news footage to spell it all out, makes “The First Lady” feel more less like a cohesive drama than a handsomely produced slideshow (“Eleanor Roosevelt: this is your life!”). It doesn’t even necessarily go in chronological order, meaning that some relationships — like that between Michelle and chief of staff Susan Sher (Kate Mulgrew) — get significant beats before their origins have been established at all.
A welcome exception is the third episode, which is comprised entirely of flashbacks to each woman’s younger self — played by the solid trio of Jayme Lawson (Michelle), Eliza Scanlen (Eleanor), and Kristine Froseth (Betty) — meeting their eventual husbands, played in their respective present days by O-T Fagbenle (Barack Obama), Kiefer Sutherland (Franklin D. Roosevelt), and Aaron Eckhart (Gerald Ford). This chapter, at least, has the distinction of a clear and recognizable through line that ties all three stories together with ease.
For the most part, however, the show’s elder generation of actors struggle to bring their characters to believable life despite being demonstrably capable of doing so throughout their careers. In particular, Anderson can’t quite find her way around those teeth, let alone her own take on Eleanor Roosevelt. (The closest she gets is when opposite Lily Rabe as Eleanor’s longtime companion, though realizing Rabe is playing formidable butch icon Lorena “Hick” Hickok just raises more questions about the casting process.) Davis and Fagbenle have their moments, especially when portraying the Obamas in their private scenes as a couple. But neither they nor the scripts can quite decide how to approach their scenes beyond that domestic bubble, and so they often end up defaulting to glancing impressions.
The most successful aspect of “The First Lady,” and the one that raises the question of why this first season didn’t just belong to her in the first place, is Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford. As a woman thrust so suddenly into the role that she could barely catch her breath before throwing her first State dinner, Pfeiffer immediately clicks into Betty’s bewildered amusement, private pain, and eventual determination to do some actual good. Her arc isn’t immune from some silliness, as her sparring with scheming Ford advisors Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil) and Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield) proves. But where the Michelle and Eleanor segments stumble in pursuit of clarity, the Betty ones have a much more recognizable drive and spark. Pfeiffer deserved better than for her performance to get chopped up into so many moving pieces, but it’s to her credit that she makes the most of what she gets.
Otherwise, despite Laura Bush’s insistence that Michelle might find something in common with the women who came before her, “The First Lady” struggles to do the same for its three leads. Watching the series attempt to make sense of itself, it’s tempting to believe that it began as three separate Michelle, Betty, and Eleanor shows before “The First Lady” slapped them together into one. So if you’re wondering why these three specific women are the show’s focal points…well, same.
In recent years, TV’s overflowed with starry re-imaginings of significant women past. “Mrs. America” (2020) took on Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett) and feminism’s clash with the rising conservative movement; “Impeachment: American Crime Story” (2021) cast Sarah Paulson and Beanie Feldstein to dive deeper into Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky’s twisted relationship, and all its reverberations; the most recent season of “The Crown” introduced Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Anderson, once again) as twin specters of a divided England. All these shows depicted extremely different women, but still found some reason to tell their stories simultaneously. “The First Lady,” despite its broad umbrella of a title, rarely does.
As if trying to fix that as quickly as possible, each episode’s opening credits — replete with newsreels of First Ladies and plucky women taking care of business — ends on the image of three women’s fists (two white, one Black) defiantly raised in the air. And yet this gesture, seemingly an attempt at some imagined intergenerational unity, inspires more annoyance than pride. Eleanor, Betty, and Michelle all pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a First Lady, but they each did so in vastly different ways and for completely different reasons. Squeezing their stories together doesn’t just make for confusing television, but does them all a disservice in the process.
“The First Lady” premieres Sunday, April 17 at 9 pm.