Mrs. America has so many stars, but so little time: Review
Cate Blanchett is flawless as anti-ERA crusader Phyllis Schlafly, but FX on Hulu's limited series struggles to encapsulate the women's liberation movement.
There’s a lot of talent involved in Mrs. America, FX on Hulu’s limited series about the fight to ratify — and block — the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s. The star-packed cast (Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Tracey Ullman, and John Slattery) has 32 Emmy nominations (and 9 wins) between them, and no doubt this prestige-y production from creator Dahvi Waller (Mad Men, Halt and Catch Fire) will rack up more. (The wig work alone is award-worthy.) But as pedigreed as Mrs. America is, the show lacks a sense of cohesion, as it labors to give equal time to the ERA era’s many, many key players. The result is more admirable and educational than truly entertaining.
It’s 1972, and conservative author and mother of six Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett) has traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby Senator Barry Goldwater (Peter MacNeill) against President Nixon’s proposed arms treaty with the Soviet Union. Though she clearly knows more about foreign policy than most of the men in the room, one of the suits asks her to act as their secretary and take notes. Seething with humiliation and anger, Phyllis vents her spleen… by scolding Goldwater for meeting with supporters of the ERA. “If you’re in favor of this fraudulent amendment,” she sniffs, “I don’t think you have any business calling yourself a Republican!” If the men won’t listen to her about Russia, Schlafly knows they’ll take her seriously on a “women’s issue” — and she’d rather be heard on something than shunted aside completely.
Meanwhile in New York City, celebrity feminist Gloria Steinem (Byrne, buried under a lush approximation of Steinem’s trademark hippie bouffant) and her National Women’s Political Caucus colleagues — Betty Friedan (Ullman), Representatives Bella Abzug (Martindale) and Shirley Chisholm (Aduba), and activist Jill Ruckelshaus (Banks) — gather to celebrate the Senate’s passage of the ERA and the launch of Chisholm’s presidential campaign. Later, at the launch party for Ms. Magazine, Steinem wonders if politicians are only listening to her because she’s “a pretty face.” Scoffs Abzug, “Who cares why they’re listening? They’re listening!”
Mrs. America traces the growth of these two opposing movements while highlighting their inevitable overlap; infighting and ego clashes, it seems, are problems on both sides of the aisle. As the STOP ERA campaign — which warned of a world where women could be drafted, and men would no longer have to pay alimony to their ex-wives — gains momentum, Schlafly becomes increasingly reluctant to yield the spotlight to her loyal soldiers Alice (Paulson) and Rosemary (Melanie Lynskey). Nor is she as keen to give up her political ambitions, which is what her husband Fred (Slattery) clearly wants. And Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminist Mystique made her an icon in the movement, bristles as she watches young women “fawning” over Steinem. Abzug and Steinem battle over how far they should push the Democratic party on issues like gay rights and abortion. All of the women, of course, are subject to blatant misogyny — whether it's an exhausted, reluctant Schlafly succumbing to Fred's desire for sex or Chisholm watching male Senators pass around an offensive cartoon at a prayer breakfast.
Dhavi and her writers present Schlafly and her “libber” counterparts as passionate but flawed characters, not monoliths of good and evil. Many of the complex, real-life women in this story are genuinely fascinating, but by attempting to give each luminary her own episode — while also chronicling the unprecedented political upheaval between 1972 and 1980 — Mrs. America winds up with a story that is lacking on both fronts. Episode 3, “Shirley,” follows Chisholm to the Democratic National Convention in Miami Beach, where she struggles to keep her candidacy afloat despite being not black enough to earn the Congressional Black Caucus’s endorsement, and being far too black and female to earn America’s votes. That last sentence contains enough for a prestige limited series all on its own, but there’s simply too much ground to cover — so after her episode, Chisholm must recede to the background, save a few minor appearances later in the series. The same holds true for Friedan — though her episode does give us a lively reenactment of her infamous 1973 debate with Schlafly, the one where she infamously called the STOP ERA founder an “Aunt Tom” and barked, “I’d like to burn you at the stake!”
Of course, when your cast includes Cate and Uzo and Rose and Margo and Tracey and Sarah, the temptation to give them each a showcase (“Phyllis” and Shirley” and “Gloria” and “Bella” and “Betty” and “Houston,” respectively) had to be immense. And the acting in Mrs. America is, unsurprisingly, superb. Externally, Blanchett is flawless — from her sculpted updo (the wigs in this piece, I tell you!) to her arch and lilting speaking style, the actress has Phyllis Schlafly nailed. But the beauty of Blanchett’s performance is internal; Schlafly was a brilliant strategist, and you can practically see her thinking three steps ahead in every scene. Martindale is perfect as the loud and brusque “Battling Bella,” and her scenes with Byrne’s more diplomatic Steinem are riveting. (Pitch: Mrs. America 2: Bella and Gloria Stick it to the Man.) As the self-effacing homemaker Alice, one of the few fictional characters in Mrs. America, Paulson delivers humor, pathos, and gut-wrenching emotion. If she doesn’t get an Emmy nomination for the scene where Alice tearfully recites a family recipe for pecan cornbread, the whole damn system is rigged.
Though I may get thrown in TV-critic jail for suggesting a show needs to be longer, Mrs. America might have been more successful spread across 18 episodes instead of nine. As it stands now, the pacing feels choppy and disjointed. Episode 5 centers largely on real-life activist and NOW vice president Brenda Feigen (Ari Graynor). Feigen is an important figure to be sure, but Graynor’s Feigen hardly registers in Mrs. America’s first four episodes — and suddenly we’re being asked to invest, for one episode only, in her marriage to Marc Fasteau (Adam Brody). (Gah, we deserve more Adam Brody!) I kept thinking about a moment in the premiere, when Schlafly warns the ladies at her DAR meeting of the dangers of the ERA. “What is going to happen if you push women out to the workforce, is that women are going to find themselves with two full-time jobs,” adding that those overworked women will “feel like they’re not doing either well.” Mrs. America is solid. But if the show had liberated itself from the idea of “having it all,” it could have been spectacular. Grade: B
Mrs. America premieres April 15 on FX on Hulu