The actresses are fine in “The First Lady,” a new Showtime series that moves among the lives and times of Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). None of them is perfectly cast, in visual terms, but they nonetheless manage to more or less evoke the famous women they are playing, especially Pfeiffer.
But the script of the series, which premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m., well that’s a different story. There are a number of big problems afoot, beginning with the very concept. Leaping among three time periods, each with its own series of flashbacks, and leaping among three very different women — it’s just too much of a dizzying whirlwind. It’s a stone that never stops skipping. The experiences of each of these women could fill an entire series, and yet here they are squashed together, with regular notations of time and place attempting to keep us grounded.
Each one of the women is basically reduced to her Wikipedia page, as we leap from one expected moment to another. It’s the worst kind of biopic behavior, times three. Betty swigging alcohol alone, Michelle vowing to improve health care when she sees her father treated unfairly, Eleanor and her romantic connection with a woman — all the things you’d expect, delivered without much imagination.
The show feels like a dutiful retelling rather than a gateway to new understanding. “The First Lady” aims to be like “The Crown,” with its blend of powerful personalities and history, but it lacks any of the intimacy and insight of the British series.
Also unlike “The Crown,” “The First Lady” is heavy with reverence for its characters that, however deserved or not, deadens the drama. The message that these women overcame barriers is hammered home, so that their heroism is never in doubt, never challenged along the way. That’s no fun. With its cast of award-winning actresses, “The First Lady” may fight its way onto nominations lists, but, ultimately, it’s a bit of a drag.