It all ends up being as harmless as a game of Kennedy paper dolls — and it is fully within anyone’s First Amendment rights to pose them however they wish. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but the key people portrayed here are all dead. Whether you want to turn them into “The Sopranos” or “The Simpsons,” knock yourself out. Put them on “Glee” for all anyone cares.
As far as this particular telling of the story goes, you could get more controversy and upsetting imagery by simply Googling the Kennedys. When, at last, the president (Greg Kinnear as JFK) and his wife (Katie Holmes as Jackie), take that fateful 1963 motorcade ride through downtown Dallas and the gunfire cracks dramatically . . . well, the camera looks away instead of providing Zapruder-style gore. Slightly more blood — a mere drop by today’s standards — spills in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen, when Robert F. Kennedy (Barry Pepper), is shot and killed in the series’s ’68 denouement. It’s difficult to recall any gentler assassination portrayals — real or re-created — in the entire, often trashy, quasi-fictional Kennedy oeuvre, especially considering how violent Surnow’s “24” could get.
In the same way, “The Kennedys” bashfully looks askance at so much of the scandal that it wishes to plumb: Jack’s sexual peccadilloes are portrayed as infrequent and with abbreviated modesty; he never actually has a scene with Marilyn Monroe (Charlotte Sullivan), whose overdose death we only hear about on the radio, instead of seeing firsthand. Even Dr. Feelgood’s frequent doses of pain relief (to both Jack and Jackie) have all the excitement of a trip to the school nurse, failing to conjure a frightening haze of a doped-up White House.
That leaves, I suppose, the fuss over the mafia stuff and election-rigging — in which Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. (Tom Wilkinson — all tortoise rims, spittle and hammy malice) commingles with the likes of Sam Giancana (Serge Houde) and a toadylike Frank Sinatra (Chris Diamantopoulos) and also conspires over the years with all manner of corrupt fixers to get his son elected.
From its first moments, “The Kennedys” sketches its characters with the precision of a fat Sharpie marker: Here, Joe is a study in pure, selfish, power-mad greed. Nothing is beneath him. He kisses his mistress-assistant farewell in the Hyannisport foyer on election night 1960, while an out-of-focus Rose Kennedy (played with dour piety by Diana Hardcastle) comes sharply and wordlessly into view from her perch on the staircase — it’s all very “Falcon Crest.”
Wilkinson, a great actor who must surely recognize the material shortcomings of Stephen Kronish’s clumsy screenplay, channels his grimaces into the performance, whether delivering Joe’s Hitler-friendly claptrap during the London ambassadorship in the 1930s or while godlessly ripping one of Rose’s crucifixes off the wall when he learns that his favorite, eldest son (the doomed and vainglorious Joe Jr., played by Gabriel Hogan) has been killed in combat.
It takes five full episodes for Wilkinson to finally be muted by Joe Sr.’s 1961 stroke, and not a moment too soon for suffering viewers. Just when you think Surnow and Kronish will give the old cuss a break, they fiendishly decide to flash back: Remember when he had his daughter lobotomized? Let’s go there.
Though “The Kennedys” lacks a sense of depth or artistry, it can be a fascinating exercise in judgment call. Perhaps it could even be a drinking game — one swig for a bad casting choice (that’s supposed to J. Edgar Hoover?) and two swigs for a great one (a perfect LBJ!). You wind up nitpicking the details: Does Kinnear’s wig look right? Does Kinnear himself look right? Here and there, yes — especially when viewed through the prism of black-and-white TV addresses. But strangely, what should be a lead role for Kinnear feels more like a walk-on. “The Kennedys” treats JFK like a miserable wretch completely at the mercy of his father’s wishes and crippled by back pain. He is trapped in the White House, unskilled at the job.
And is Holmes’s whispery Jackie sounding a tad Edith Bunker in the later episodes? She’s not altogether terrible in the part, which doesn’t give her a lot to work with; as written, Jackie is a jittery phantom in capri pants and Oleg Cassini gowns.
Finally, as Rose liked to say, thank God for Bobby. Early in the series, Surnow and Kronish settle on the only hero they can find in all this — and something genuine for viewers to hold onto — in the form of Barry Pepper’s astonishingly good and often eerily spot-on RFK portrayal — matched by an equally shining, spunky turn by Kristin Booth as Ethel. When Bobby and Ethel are on the screen, “The Kennedys” finally feels like it has a story to tell, rather than a term paper to finish.
Since people watch TV with the Internet always standing by, viewers born after 1965 or so will probably work their way through “The Kennedys” the same way I did, with questions of “wait — really?” triggering a flurry of search results that will, of course, be more vague than definitive. Welcome to Kennedy scholarship, kids.
Owing more to its overambitious breadth of material than any overt political agenda, “The Kennedys” necessarily compresses, stretches, distorts and otherwise crams itself into a soap opera that is occasionally elegant and even moving near the end. It has to. If it was possible to get the whole thing into eight hours of television with any lick of accuracy, someone would have succeeded by now.
People with firsthand recollections of the Kennedy era may find themselves uncomfortable viewing the story through Surnow and company’s mean-spirited gaze. This darkness of spirit and willingness to compress truth may be why the History Channel decided it couldn’t stomach showing it. Certainly the network saw the script early enough to know that Kronish — whose TV writing credits include “24,” “The Commish” and wander all the way back to some “MacGyver” episodes — had created an epic in which characters would speak a lot of a expository dialogue (“Dad’s the most populah American in Europe! Roooosevelt cahn’t touch him. He wouldn’t day-ah!”) but never say anything from the heart.
Still, the History Channel should have held onto it, for the ratings help alone. Even a bad “Kennedys” has a winning allure.
How irresistible that Starz is unrolling “Camelot,” its Friday-night youth-injected, geek-friendly version of Arthurian legends, on the same weekend that Reelz is unfurling the “The Kennedys.”
It helpfully reinforces my original reaction to the idea that any movie or TV project could somehow sully the Kennedy brand. If you check your calendar, we’re nearing the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, which makes him, his family and Cabinet members as fair game as King Arthur, Guinevere, Merlin and the gang, who’ve had their stories updated, revised and pillaged for centuries now.
Somewhere in the future, perhaps the Kennedys will get the same reverential yet modern treatment afforded this “Camelot,” which ramps up the doom and gloom (and violence) of long ago. Here, the evil sorceress Morgan (Eva Green) is a half sister to Arthur (Jamie Campbell Bower), which makes them both heirs to the throne of King Uther (whom Morgan has poisoned).
At this stylish intersection of a Lollapalooza concert and last weekend’s Renn faire, we will fight to the death for the crown and all that, guided by Campbell’s scrawny, underwhelming, indie-rock Arthur and a malevolently intriguing, shaved-head take on Merlin from “FlashForward’s” Joseph Fiennes. About the only thing I enjoyed here was a new twist on the extracting of the fabled Excalibur sword from the stone, but I have no doubt that there are Arthurians out there who’ll drink mightily from this “Camelot’s” goblet.
(two-hour premiere) begins at 8 p.m. Sunday
(115-minute premiere) begins at 10 p.m. Friday on Starz.