Sometimes, in dramas like the new miniseries “Mrs. America,” the portrayal of well-known people can veer into cartoony excess — which might work perfectly in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, but which doesn’t fly when the script calls for dramatic legitimacy. Imagine Kristin Wiig’s Liza Minnelli or Bill Hader’s Alan Alda trying to break your heart. I still feel sad when I think of poor Matthew Perry trying to play Teddy Kennedy in the 2017 miniseries “The Kennedys.” Could his performance be any more unfitting?
I’m happy to say that the excellent nine-part “Mrs. America” has very little of that kind of over-impersonation, as it tells the story of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment across the 1970s. Oh sure, Margo Martindale’s Bronx accent as Bella Abzug is ridden with twang, and Uzo Aduba’s Shirley Chisholm occasionally visits “Crazy Eyes” territory. But those missteps don’t get in the way, and the cast is remarkably good overall, particularly Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem and Cate Blanchett as conservative anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly. I found it impossible not to watch Blanchett intently throughout, as she cloaks Schlafly’s views in velvet tones with a Joan Crawford-like fury brewing underneath. Created by Dahvi Waller, the miniseries is a fantastic vehicle for its cast of actresses, not least of all Tracey Ullman as a passionate but soured Betty Friedan. They all find the humanity, as well as the flaws, in the famous women they play.
“Mrs. America” is also a still-resonant story very well told, as it looks into all sides — with equal gusto and imagination — of the national debate over the ERA. Some parts of the miniseries serve as a procedural about political activism and how things are done, but mostly it tethers all of the politics to the personal in striking ways. We see, in sharply etched scenes, the motivations for each character, as well as the distinctions and differences among them. Superficially, there are two sides: Schlafly, along with her housewife friends (including Sarah Paulson’s evolving Alice) have organized a “Stop ERA” movement, while Steinem, Chisholm, Friedan, and Ms.-magazine cofounder Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor) are fighting hard to see it ratified. But “Mrs. America” breaks down each side beautifully, so that within each there are conflicting schools of thought. In order to be effective, all the women need to find their way to unity, despite the significant disparities among them.
The infighting ranges from the mild to the feverish (among which there’s an absolutely lovely scene of forgiveness between Steinem and Friedan). At one point, Abzug wants Chisholm — the first Black female candidate for president — to drop out to make way for George McGovern, which deeply displeases her. During a Ms. editorial meeting, a Black staffer proposes a piece about tokenism, which the other staffers, including Steinem, reject. She is the only Black person in the room. Feigen, who is married to a man, is exploring her sexuality with a female photographer, while Friedan has absolutely no interest in including same-sex anything in the movement. Meanwhile, Schlafly — an early supporter of “alternative facts” — is not delighted to have to deal with conservative women who support the John Birch Society and their connections to the Ku Klux Klan. She also copes with her internalized conflict about the impact of her stand on LGBT people, once she learns one of her six children is gay.
One thing all of the women face is sexism, and we see it in all kinds of manifestations. There are countless micro- and macro-aggressions chronicled in “Mrs. America,” not least of all toward Schlafly. As her husband, Frank, John Slattery reveals the insecurity of a man whose wife has great interpersonal power, so that she must learn to hide her light to protect him — although when he calls her “submissive” on TV, she’s less willing to tiptoe around him. TV interviewers and all-male political committees treat Schlafly as if she’s not intellectual enough, simply because she’s a woman and they are threatened by her empowerment. It’s an excruciating sight right out of “Mad Men.” And yet she continues to fight against a constitutional amendment that would put women on the same legal footing as men. I remember hearing a radio piece, after Hillary Clinton got the presidential nomination in 2016, focusing on women who do not believe a woman ought to be president. The miniseries, through Schlafly, brings us on a deep dive into how that thinking works.
There are a lot of plots in “Mrs. America,” whose first three episodes premiere Wednesday on Hulu, with new episodes each Wednesday after that. But they’re woven together organically, unfolding with the same grace of the phenomenal cast.
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman, Margo Martindale, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, Elizabeth Banks, Rose Byrne, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, James Marsden, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Niecy Nash
On: FX on Hulu
The first three episodes premiere Wednesday, with new episodes each Wednesday after that