As I watched the new two-part miniseries “The Kennedys After Camelot,” I promised myself I would not start this review by ridiculing its squawking, ear-confounding, British-Southie-sounding, “Peanuts”-adults-by-way-of-hell Kennedy accents, or by initiating an impassioned defense of the poor letter “r,” which in Hollywood’s version of New England is the Pluto of consonants, demoted and, alas, forgotten.
But the cacophonic sounds of Reelz’s “The Kennedys After Camelot,” premiering Sunday at 9 p.m., are an essential part of the fun. Turns out the best way to experience this absurd, horribly written, curiously acted soap opera is to keep your humor about you, to jeer-watch as the characters become tabloid parodies. Even when scenes are meant to be sad, you may find yourself tickled by some odd touch — Ethel Kennedy yelling “Get a dack-tah” after her husband is shot, for example. When we’re treated to the first sex scene between Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, adorable love bugs in part one, I hooted loudly with each smooch he plants on her long legs, and even louder as white soul music rises in the background. What is this, “Dynasty”?
Actually, kind of. One of the distinctions of this two-parter, a sequel to Reelz’s less comical eight-part “The Kennedys” from 2011, is the way it turns Jackie (Katie Holmes) and Ethel (Kristin Booth) into Krystle and Alexis, the “Dynasty” enemies. I didn’t catch any mud-wrestling, but there’s a dishy ongoing clash between the two. See Ethel snipe at Jackie, “It’s our turn now,” about her husband’s White House prospects. See Ethel snub Ari when he visits Hyannisport, telling Jackie, “You will never be part of us anymore.” Why the hostility? Let’s just say Jackie has a way of stealing the attention of the Kennedy men from their wives, as evidenced by her cozy snuggle with Robert F. Kennedy (Barry Pepper) in a flashback. Joan Kennedy (Kristen Hager), too, will have Jackie-envy, as Teddy drifts toward her dignified aura for support after the Chappaquiddick incident.
It’s time for me to note that Matthew Perry stars as Teddy Kennedy. Could that casting choice be any stranger? He just doesn’t make any sense in the role — he doesn’t look the part, and he doesn’t have the right body language. At least the other actors look a bit like the people they’re playing; Perry remains Perry throughout. Worst of all, he decides not to invent a cockamamie accent, leaving little to laugh at. Holmes, on the other hand, goes through a series of pronunciations and inflections, often resolving into a kind sassy Brooklynese. Like all the characters, her Jackie also tends to be quite different from scene to scene. Grieving Jackie quickly becomes Angry-at-God Jackie, who becomes “Valley of the Dolls” Jackie, who becomes Sexy Jackie, who becomes Moral Jackie, the one who slaps Chappaquiddick Teddy, saying, “Jack would be so disappointed.”
Ari, played by Alexander Siddig, is the cliché of a passionate Greek man, proclaiming “Life is for living!” He bows down to Jackie, much to his daughter Christina’s chagrin — and, later, much to Jackie’s chagrin, after she sees his creepy shrine to her — but Smitten Ari becomes Evil Ari after his son, Alexander, dies from injuries in a plane crash. “You are death,” the grieving father says to Jackie out of nowhere. “You killed your husband. You killed my son. You are cursed. Everything you touch turns to death. I never want to see you again.” That’s the level of subtlety in “The Kennedys After Camelot.” The Chappaquiddick portion of the miniseries, too, is a bit of extended bombast and titillation, as Teddy and Mary Jo Kopechne (Kelly Van der Burg) dance all sexy-like before leaving for their fateful ride. We’re given a few scenes of a screaming Mary Jo stuck in the upside-down car as it slowly sinks, inch by inch.
The second half of the miniseries, which airs on April 9, has Jackie dealing with John Jr.’s misbehavior and his bar-exam difficulties, Teddy running for president, and ignored wife Joan facing her alcoholism. It’s less eventful than part one, less entertaining in its soapy excesses, less concerned with the Katharine Hepburn version of Rose Kennedy, played by Diana Hardcastle. Ultimately, it’s just a little less out of its mind.
THE KENNEDYS AFTER CAMELOT
Starring: Matthew Perry, Katie Holmes, Alexander Siddig, Kristin Booth, Kristen Hager, Diana Hardcastle
On: Reelz, Sunday at 9 p.m.