There are many lessons to be learned from history. The United States is a relatively young country, yet it has still evolved considerably since its founding almost two and a half centuries ago. One of the most visible people since its inception has been its President, and as technology and communication have become more advanced, that means an increased spotlight on the personal and family life of the Chief Executive. Standing beside what has so far only included men is the First Lady, a role that can have minimal influence or quite a bit depending on the person involved. Showtime’s new anthology series The First Lady explores several of the most impactful women to hold that title.
The three chosen are Michelle Obama (Viola Davis), Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson). Each represents a different milestone for the presidency of which they were a part. Barack Obama (O-T Fagbenle) was the first Black president. Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart) was appointed to the office of vice-president and then assumed the presidency when Richard Nixon resigned. Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Kiefer Sutherland) aspired to the highest office despite suffering from polio, a condition that, if public, might have prevented him from even running.
Defining these women by their husbands is expressly the opposite of this show’s purpose, and it’s necessary only to explain how they fit in to the narrative of the country. All three had concrete goals of what they would like to achieve but also developed new ideas and priorities once they were met with the realities of their circumstances and the roadblocks they did not expect to face. They also demanded to be heard and not to be silenced or ignored by their husbands or the men in his administration, which of course meant different things in the era which they lived: the 2000s, the 1970s, and the 1930s.
Rather than just pick one first lady to focus on in a given episode or even a segment of one, this series jumps around among the three. It also includes flashbacks to early formative moments of each of their childhoods, which then inform the way they act as adults when they are in charge, to a degree, of their own fates. It may be a disorienting experience for those unfamiliar with presidential history and global events related to each of their administrations, but the costumes and set pieces should help distinguish the settings, which are spread apart by enough decades to be distinct.
In casting any project based on real people, there is a tendency to lean towards imitation more than anything else. Fortunately, that does not seem to be the primary aim here, with an eye to strong performances rather than mimicry or physical similarities. While Fagbenle does do a spectacular job of emulating Obama’s chuckle, Eckhart bears only a slight resemblance to Ford. But the acting speaks for itself, particularly when it comes to the three women who star, who command their scenes and create characters who can stand on their own while still paying tribute to their inspirations.
The scope of The First Lady is certainly ambitious, especially since scenes with a young Eleanor take place at the end of the nineteenth century, more than one hundred years before Michelle was in the White House. It will undoubtedly serve, for some, like The Crown, as a history lesson with the potential to spark further research after each viewing. For those more well-versed with the work and influence of these three first ladies and their husbands, it should still be worthwhile to see their lives played out on screen, extrapolating connections between three women with similar spirits whose worlds were radically different.
Check out more of Abe Friedtanzer’s articles.
New episodes of The First Lady premiere weekly on Sundays at 9pm on Showtime.