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‘The First Lady’ turns three compelling women into Emmy bait

Michelle Obama, Betty Ford and Eleanor Roosevelt are — almost — given their due with big-name portrayals but uneven storylines in Showtime’s new series

Viola Davis, left, as Michelle Obama, alongside Kathleen Garrett as Laura Bush in “The First Lady.” (Jackson Lee Davis/Showtime)
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The new East Wing drama, “The First Lady,” exists to illustrate a fact most of us intuitively know: The women asked to play hostess, decorator, fashion plate and champion for unobjectionable causes as part of each administration’s political theater tend to be much more interesting and complicated than the manicured images they project.

That’s certainly the case for the trio of FLOTUSes whose lives are dramatized by the 10-part debut season of Showtime’s anthology series: Eleanor Roosevelt (played by Gillian Anderson), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis). Well-behaved women seldom make history, goes the Second Wave saying — a maxim that extends to the White House.

The other reason “The First Lady” exists is to garner awards attention. So while it celebrates women who break the mold, the show itself is deeply — and dispiritingly — conventional. Created by Aaron Cooley, the decade-hopping drama seeks to inspire while lingering, sometimes morbidly so, on tragedy via countless flashbacks, never once seriously questioning an office that’s not only come under increasing fire for its retrograde underpinnings, but frequently makes its own protagonists desperately unhappy. Then there’s the unconvincing thesis of the series, stated in a letter from the fictionalized Betty to Michelle: “First ladies and their teams are often the vanguards of social progress in this country” — a liberal fantasy that willfully mistakes the anomalies as the norm.

Perhaps it’s because Betty Ford’s story is the least known among the three that her scenes are the most compelling. Sporting a stiff bouffant, Pfeiffer offers the showiest performance — some will deem it the most scenery-chewing — as a disappointed former dancer overwhelmed by loneliness, motherhood and a spiraling addiction to alcohol and painkillers in her husband Gerald’s (Aaron Eckhart) near-constant absence. A moderate Republican who supports abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment and pushes her fellow ladies who lunch to read “The Feminine Mystique,” Betty is repeatedly chastised for her outspokenness — including her taboo-breaking discussions of her breast cancer — by Gerald’s wrongheaded aides, Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield) and Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil), a Tweedledee and Tweedledum in slacks. The reminder of a pre-Reagan GOP that boasted ideological overlap with the Democrats is welcome, as are the revisits to the national conversation about women’s health that the real-life Ford helped facilitate.

Obvious dental prosthetics and an unfortunately mannered turn by Anderson — though less strained than her effortful pantomime of Margaret Thatcher on “The Crown” — distract from a rewriting of Eleanor Roosevelt that’s fairly bold, at least for a mainstream TV series. “The First Lady” foregrounds Eleanor’s silver-spoon loftiness, with several scenes of her younger self (played by Eliza Scanlen) consoled by her uncle and former president Theodore (Jeremy Bobb). Nor does the series shy from the aloofness Eleanor showed her own family, especially her six children, while campaigning tirelessly on behalf of the wretched and the downtrodden. (Her preference for crowds and ideological allies over her blood relations may, in fact, be her most presidential quality.)

Biographers have debated for decades the nature of Eleanor Roosevelt’s close friendship with pioneering reporter Lorena Hickok (Lily Rabe), a known lesbian. “The First Lady” posits their relationship as romantic and physically intimate — a midlife blossoming for Eleanor, who considers her husband Franklin (Kiefer Sutherland) closer to a “teammate” than a traditional spouse after his propriety-minded mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn) pressures them to stay together after a particularly painful betrayal on his part. But the steadfast deference that Franklin shows his wife, depicted not entirely persuasively, renders their marriage of convenience surprisingly modern, even easy to root for. In contrast, Eleanor and Lorena’s relationship feels slapdash and underwritten, with Anderson and Rabe sharing less than a nanogram of chemistry.

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In “The First Lady,” Eleanor fights segregation, secures asylum for dozens of World War II refugees and plays an outsize role in the formation of the United Nations. Some decades later, Betty, too, defies the conventions of upper-class femininity by speaking out about her mastectomy and struggles with addiction. But Michelle Obama’s legacy has yet to be fully written, which may be why, despite Davis’s meticulous mimicry of her character’s tics and movements, her scenes feel the least consequential.

Eleanor and Betty eventually win over hearts and minds by testing the limits of a role they never wanted. The series correctly observes that Michelle is under much greater scrutiny than her White predecessors; a rare misstep on the 2008 campaign trail instantly gets the “angry Black woman” label pinned on her. “The First Lady” is convincing enough when it traverses the cracks in the marriage between “Meesh,” as she’s called by her loved ones, and Barack (O.T. Fagbenle) — in Chicago, she finds his politics too idealistic, and in the Oval Office, his tactics overly cautious. There are also tantalizing hints that their approaches to Blackness often diverge; when they meet, she’s a child of the South Side with a bone-deep familiarity with its injustices, while he’s writing a book chronicling his search for his identity.

But much of present-day Michelle’s plotlines are about how she’s told to tamp herself down, most often by her husband’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (Michael Aronov) — a realistic scenario, but not exactly riveting TV. Jayme Lawson steals every scene she’s in as the younger Michelle, but even on a show as padded with extraneous incidents as this one, we don’t need to see the future first lady being dissuaded from applying to Princeton by a prejudiced guidance counselor or mistaken for a maid by the mother of a college roommate. Michelle Obama’s time in the White House simply needs more time for it to be satisfyingly narrativized; she has decades yet to finish her story.

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“The First Lady” owes its eminent watchability to its episodic structure, which organizes each hour by theme: how they fell in love with their husbands, dealt with the pressing issues of the day and, finally, adjusted back to civilian life. (Having been waited on as the first lady for so long, Eleanor, for instance, is confounded by the kitchen appliances in the house she moves into after Franklin’s death.) The throughlines between the women emphasize their similarities, especially in seeing their hopes for a life outside their husbands’ ambitions dashed — and for Eleanor and Michelle, a more serious position in the White House never considered despite their prodigious talents and wealth of knowledge.

That’s the central paradox of our veneration for first ladies: a job well done despite never wanting the responsibility — the cult of wifely self-sacrifice. (If a theoretical first lady confessed to coveting the role, she’d immediately be called a Lady Macbeth.) One has to wonder how much further we’ll have to wait until female politicians — women who want more direct access to power and influence, rather than channeling their desires through an important man — are, on the whole, as beloved as first ladies.

For all the lavish production values, Emmy-baiting performances and quasi-feminist cheerleading of a series like “The First Lady,” there’s something abidingly desultory about a series premise that, rather than interrogating a brutal system, salutes the few women who endured it by carving out exceptions for themselves. But then again, what’s more American than that?

The First Lady (one hour) premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.