Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Gillian Anderson can't save Showtime's ponderous political anthology.
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"First Ladies and their teams are often the vanguards of social progress in this country, despite no budget and no pay," writes Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) to Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) in the tenth and final episode of Showtime's The First Lady. The sentiment serves as the thesis for this anthology series from creator Aaron Cooley and director Susanne Bier, a well-meaning but ponderous effort that wastes a trio of extraordinary actresses with its dull and cursory storytelling.

Despite its singular title, The First Lady insists on cramming three presidential spouses — Mrs. Obama, Mrs. Ford, and Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) — and multiple administrations into each hour-long episode. The series introduces them at pivotal moments in their husbands' political career: FDR (Kiefer Sutherland) falling ill with polio and launching his NY gubernatorial campaign in the 1920s; Gerald Ford (Aaron Eckhart) being nominated to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President in 1973; and Barack Obama (O-T Fagbenle) arriving at the White House with his wife and young daughters in 2008.

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in THE FIRST LADY
Credit: Daniel McFadden/SHOWTIME

From there the stories leap back and forth — three different timelines, each with their own flashbacks — touching on courtships and childhood, tensions at home and triumphs with the voting public. First Lady (premiering April 17) chronicles the many ways these wives were integral to their husbands' success: Women rallied around Betty Ford after she went public with her breast cancer diagnosis in 1974; adoring crowds greet Michelle on the campaign trail in 2008 after Barack's team says he has a "relatability issue"; Eleanor provides a list of potential female cabinet appointees to FDR, who ultimately named a woman to the post of Secretary of Labor.

But once the men make it to the Oval Office, Eleanor, Betty, and Michelle are all told to step back and smile. "Oh, I see," sniffs Eleanor in her haughty mid-Atlantic drawl, to FDR's top advisor, Louis Howe (Jackie Earle Haley). "I'm good enough to get him here but not good enough to keep going." This injustice is the entire foundation upon which The First Lady's reason for being is built — yet for some reason, the folks behind the project decided that none of these fascinating First Ladies could carry their own show.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in THE FIRST LADY
Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford in The Firs
| Credit: Murray Close/SHOWTIME

Betty Ford's life alone could fuel several limited series: Former dance student of Martha Graham, outspoken supporter of abortion rights and the ERA, a recovering addict who built a world-famous rehab center in the desert. The same holds true for Eleanor Roosevelt or Michelle Obama, yet all of their stories are divvied up into greatest-hits bits, and the show ultimately plays like a prestige (and repetitive) reenactment of each First Lady's Wikipedia page.

Anderson recreates several of Eleanor Roosevelt's famous radio addresses ("A woman is like a teabag — you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water"). Multiple scenes depict a young Michelle Obama (Jayme Lawson) watching her sick father (Michael Potts) navigate a health care system that caters to wealthier patients with better insurance. There are clumsy moments of epiphany: "I am a Roosevelt. I should use it to further the causes that I believe in," muses Eleanor. "Now I get to make a difference!" announces Michelle to her Senator husband after landing a job at University of Chicago Hospitals. Then they both dance to Mary J. Blige.

It's a shame, because the cast is excellent. Davis and Anderson tackle their characters with typical polish and precision, and Pfeiffer gives an exquisitely controlled performance as Betty Ford, embodying the fun-loving First Lady's poise and witty charm as well as the emptiness those qualities masked. Lily Rabe recurs as Lorena Hickok, the pioneering lesbian journalist who formed a close (and possibly romantic) bond with Eleanor Roosevelt, and often stayed in a bedroom adjoining the First Lady's in the White House. (Seriously, how is this not its own show?) The actors behind the Presidents are suitably charismatic as well, despite being laden with the requisite hairpieces and prosthetics that come with this current wave of true-life TV.

"You knew what you were getting into," notes Gerald Ford, informing Betty that she's about to become First Lady in the wake of Nixon's resignation. It's a common theme in these women's lives: You married a politician, what did you expect? I suppose as viewers we could say the same thing to ourselves: A-list stars playing Important People, an Emmy-hungry network, a TV industry that seems to value "true" more than "story" — we knew what we were getting into. But that doesn't mean we have to like it. Grade: C+

The First Lady premieres April 17 on Showtime.

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