Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Viola Davis as Michelle Obama — “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,” says Matthew Gilbert. “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.”
- What holds The First Lady back is its focus on three first ladies rather than one, with conflicting stories that compete for our attention: “Sure, the writers draw thematic connections, and each marquee actress does her real-life counterpart justice, but each episode feels like it’s teasing the viewer,” says Kelly Lawler. “Just when Roosevelt’s story gets gripping as she confronts her husband over his infidelity, the series abruptly pivots to the Obamas having an argument about Barack’s political career in 2001. Sure, it’s two shaky moments in two marriages, but there is the sense that the Roosevelts weren’t quite done with the scene by the time the Obamas show up. It’s more historical whiplash than historical commentary. So many individual scenes are engrossing and superbly acted, but they’re often undercut by the time jumping and editing. There’s never quite enough from any one first lady, which leaves a sense of disappointment. It’s unfortunately a show that is lesser than the sum of its Emmy- and Oscar-winning parts.”
- Michelle Pfeiffer’s Betty Ford runs away with the series: “Michelle Obama, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Betty Ford: One of these ladies is not quite like the others,” says Gabrielle Bruney. “It’s not just because she’s the Republican on the list—Ford, who spent only 895 days in the White House, just doesn’t have the same prominence in American cultural memory as the history-making, two-term, and still-prominent Obama, or Roosevelt, who served for 12 years and reshaped the nation’s idea of what a president’s wife could accomplish. So it might come as a slight surprise that despite (or perhaps because of) her lower profile, Betty Ford’s story is by far the best part of Showtime’s new series, The First Lady.” Eleanor Roosevelt has been endlessly portrayed, while Michelle Obama is regularly in the news. “Outside of …….