Sunday, April 17, 2022

REVIEW: 'The First Lady' - Eleanor, Betty and Michelle Grapple with the Political Aspirations of Their Husbands in 'That White House'

Showtime's The First Lady - Episode 1.01 "That White House"

Eleanor commits to Franklin's uncertain political future. Betty unexpectedly becomes Second Lady upon Jerry's nomination. Michelle wrestles with the consequences of Barack becoming the first Black President of the United States.

"That White House" was directed by Susanne Bier with story by Aaron Cooley and teleplay by Aaron Cooley, Ellen Fairey, Jennifer Westfeldt, Hunt Baldwin, Abby Ajayi & Zora Bikangaga

Eleanor Roosevelt was a woman. Betty Ford was an addict. Michelle Obama was Black. These were the obstacles they faced as they rose to the office of First Lady of the United States. The pressures society placed on them as a result of those identifies shaped so much of their stories. They aspired for so much more. They wanted to expand the service they could provide for the country. They were entrusted with leaving their own mark on the job. This show sets out to detail the different ways the various individuals have held the title. It's puzzling though as the connective tissue beyond the office doesn't exist. No one can really describe what these three women have in common. Their stories don't intersect in meaningful ways. They occupy the same space. The weight of this office looms on each of them. The responsibilities are very similar. The spotlight puts pressure on their individual marriages. However, not enough time is truly spent with any of these characters to provide much insight into what all of this means. It's mostly the show going through the motions of what a biographical telling of these women's lives would be. And then, it plays around with time to such an extreme that it's hard to make sense of the internal trajectory. The series wants to detail the lives of these women and what informed their actions. Eleanor wanted to dismiss the tradition of the outgoing First Lady giving a tour of the White House to the incoming one. She already knows the landscape as she visited her uncle Teddy Roosevelt numerous times when he held the office. She had this aspiration for Franklin as well. It became reality for them despite him being stricken with polio. That never held him back. He could still pursue the highest office in the land. She wants people to appreciate her. She is shut out of the room. Power evades her. The office is never something Betty and Michelle actively pursued. Betty was preparing for a life in retirement. Michelle had her own thriving career. Their respective husbands made decisions that had far-reaching repercussions for their entire families. Betty and Michelle had to reckon with that while still being completely supportive in their marriages. They had to find their own confidence when faced with this newfound pressure. The experience is unique to them. As such, the show highlights the ways in which these stories are different. They aren't connected together by the butler who has worked in the residence for decades. It's not offering some insight into the way views on gender have evolved over the years. Again, it's just the biographical telling of events personalized with details that hint at the conversations that must have happened behind closed doors.

Betty has run in these political circles for years. Her husband, Gerald Ford, has been a powerful figure in Congress. That's what made him enviable to replace Spiro Agnew as Vice President. The Nixon administration was simply so corrupt that Ford was elevated to lead the country without anyone voting for him. Sure, Senators had to approve him once Agnew left. Those politicians are meant to accurately represent their constituents. However, it all hinges around Betty being vulnerable. She has to tell her own story. She sees the power in that. She can't simply recite a speech that was planned as if nothing else was happening. All of this has to become more personalized. The duty of the office is to handle the most pressing issues facing the country. It's a job so many aspire to have. It's the pinnacle of power. Franklin and Eleanor come from a political dynasty. Their aspirations were laid out early on because of their intelligence. As such, nothing could possibly stand in their way. Meanwhile, Barack Obama had the importance of representing an entire community. He ran so that the entire country could ultimately support the aspirational quality of life. No matter where one comes from, they can achieve anything they set their mind to. That was always the clear message in his head even in the face of death threats. Michelle never wanted her husband to be yet another picture on the wall showing the early death of a Black man who fought to accelerate societal change. That would destroy her family. They would forever be martyrs to the cause. That's not good enough. Barack's ambitions for the office simply couldn't be dimmed. Michelle had to accept the risk. All of this could turn dire at any moment. She could never feel comfortable in the White House. The tour by Laura Bush highlights a willingness to be compassionate and friendly. It also showcases this as a space where Barack and Michelle were never meant to belong. It's up to them to live in these roles with honor and grace. They have to be aware of things others have the luxury to ignore. All of these ideas are very fascinating and worthy of searing examination. The split focus prevents the narrative from ever finding some kind of internal consistency and momentum. Eleanor is important for a moment. Then, the narrative shifts to Betty. Then, it's back to Michelle. Their stories have some similarities. They are completely unique and must stand on their own. That's a powerful overall message. The execution prevents the amount of time necessary for that nuance from happening. And so, it truly feels like a collection of actors doing their best with a handful of standout moments without being aware of the picture as a whole and the impact these stories should collectively have. That lasting impression seems diminished right away.