By Ken Tucker
Updated April 07, 2011 at 04:00 AM EDT
2010 Kennedys Productions (Ontario) Inc. and Zak Cassar

Whether hopped up or chilled out on painkillers, philandering compulsively, or being downright rude to Frank Sinatra, the Kennedy family certainly comes off like a dreadful bunch in The Kennedys, a miniseries with a vengeance. The most striking thing about this eight-part production may be the disconnect between its subject and its execution: There’s some terrific acting here, but it’s done in the service of a hatchet job.

You have to wonder what was going through Greg Kinnear’s mind as he portrays John F. Kennedy with such controlled grace while moving through subplots of uncontrolled melodrama. Katie Holmes does a fine job as Jacqueline Kennedy, considering that Jackie’s public image consisted primarily of her looking lovely and speaking in a coy, hushed murmur. Barry Pepper, so good in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, performs skillfully around a prosthetic schnoz as Robert F. Kennedy, who’s depicted as the real brains of the Kennedy outfit.

And ”outfit,” in its slang gangster meaning, is the correct term. Producer and co-writer Joel Surnow, who made his rep with 24 and his Hollywood-conservative interviews, keys in on Joseph Kennedy Sr., played with fierce asperity by Tom Wilkinson. For Surnow, Joe was an immoral climber who cut deals with underworld figures, paid for votes, and bullied his sons.

All of which may have some basis in fact, but The Kennedys renders every triumph ? joyless and literally painful. JFK suffered from acute back problems, and Jackie from depression, so the miniseries has them ? both taking needles in the rear from Max Jacobson (a.k.a. Dr. Feelgood). Of course, you shouldn’t be learning your American history from TV movies. I no more believe that Joe Kennedy called Sinatra ”a lightweight, irrelevant phony” (seems too music-critic-like for the philistine Joe) than I do that Jackie told Caroline, right after the Cuban Missile Crisis, ”Your daddy just saved the world.” That kind of pithy phrasemaking is the stuff of scriptwriters’ dreams — and I’m guessing the dream lives of co-writers Stephen Kronish and Surnow were working overtime.

You don’t need to be a historian or a fact-checker to feel the falseness of The Kennedys; the thing simply doesn’t hold together as a miniseries. Each part has one theme to ? hammer home — the Bay of Pigs, civil rights, Marilyn Monroe’s (attempted?) seduction of both JFK and RFK — and irregularly interrupts the dramatic flow with often-unnecessary flashbacks.

I can see why multiple networks passed on The Kennedys: not just because it’s a political hot potato, but because it’s a cobbled-together, mean-spirited piece of work that can’t help alienating viewers, whether you venerate the Kennedys or dislike them. C?

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