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'The First Lady' is far from perfect—but its lead performances make it worth watching

The First Lady, which interweaves the stories of three different occupants of the White House from three different eras: Betty Ford is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, Michelle Obama is played by Viola Davis, and Eleanor Roosevelt, a very vocal proponent of women's rights, is played by Gillian Anderson.

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Other segments from the episode on April 13, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 13, 2022: Interview with Delia Ephron; Review of The First Lady

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This Sunday, Showtime premieres a new 10-part series called "The First Lady," dramatizing the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama. They're played, respectively, by Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Showtime's "The First Lady" interweaves the story of three different occupants of the White House from three different eras. It's not the first scripted TV drama to give such political roles to very strong actresses, nor is it the best. Throughout TV's own long history, those would include ABC's "Eleanor And Franklin" in the 1970s with Jane Alexander as Eleanor Roosevelt and, from the '80s, Blair Brown as Jackie Kennedy in NBC's "Kennedy" miniseries and Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Todd Lincoln in NBC's "Lincoln." Showtime's new "The First Lady" miniseries has performers and performances every bit the equal of those. Each of these first ladies, in her own way, was proudly and defiantly progressive. Betty Ford is played by Michelle Pfeiffer. Michelle Obama is played by Viola Davis. And Eleanor Roosevelt, a very vocal proponent of women's rights, is played by Gillian Anderson, heard here in an early radio address.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIRST LADY")

GILLIAN ANDERSON: (As Eleanor Roosevelt) People say no woman could stand the physical strain a man endures. But that, I think, is nonsense. A woman is like a tea bag - you never know how strong it is until it's in hot water.

BIANCULLI: "The First Lady" is created by Aaron Cooley, and Susanne Bier directed all 10 episodes, which I previewed. Their approach is consistent but, at times, confusing. "The First Lady" jumps among the three narratives, but even those individual stories aren't told chronologically. In each of them, we leap back and forth, seeing the first ladies both as presidential wives and as girls and young women played by younger actresses. As the flashbacks and episodes pile up, so do the insights - the career paths not followed, the sometimes-rocky romances, the longtime family dynamics. The downside is that the tales told here not only are needlessly complicated, but frustratingly obvious. At times, it's like a greatest achievements compilation from three different presidential administrations and greatest missteps, too. There is value, though, in juxtaposing how three prominent first ladies fought to find and use their voices, as when Michelle Pfeiffer, as Betty Ford, addresses congressional wives the same day as her husband's confirmation hearing as the vice presidential replacement for the disgraced Spiro Agnew.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIRST LADY")

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Betty Ford) We love our husbands, right? Right? OK. But...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, we do.

PFEIFFER: (As Betty Ford) ...Every night, he's at a fundraiser or a speech in some faraway city. Then he comes home right at the kids' bedtime, disrupts the entire household. Then he heads into the bedroom, and you go downstairs and heat up some dinner, mix cocktails. But when you come back up, he's snoring.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: (As Betty Ford) And you're left holding two cocktails.

(LAUGHTER)

PFEIFFER: (As Betty Ford) But this is what we signed up for, ladies, when we married politicians.

BIANCULLI: Even though I'm lukewarm about the structure of "The First Lady" and wary of the depictions of some of the specific storylines, I'm also very, very enthusiastic about the lead performances. Michelle Pfeiffer is amazing as Betty Ford, simmering volcanically throughout, but finally exploding with rage and pain late in the series as her family confronts her about her alcoholism. Gillian Anderson, as Eleanor, conveys so much, even when saying nothing. And her scenes with her husband Franklin, played surprisingly convincingly by Kiefer Sutherland, range from touching to heartbreaking. As for Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, she persuasively embodies her true-life character, too, as in this scene from 2007 as a community affairs representative for a Chicago hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE FIRST LADY")

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) With the South Side Healthcare Collaborative, any patient who shows up in our emergency room who can't afford a primary care doctor will instantly be connected to one. I'm talking about people who live just outside these walls, who sweep our floors, drive our city's buses, collect our trash. These are our neighbors. And if we believe that health care is not just for the privileged few, then it's time we served them, too, right? Thank you.

BIANCULLI: As with all dramatizations of history, it's wise to take all based-on-fact stories with several pillars of salt. But this miniseries, "The First Lady," is worth seeing because it does illustrate, through its various narratives and timelines, just how much progress we've made and haven't made regarding so many important issues. It's also worth seeing for its impressive leading roles. Gillian Anderson, Michelle Pfeiffer and Viola Davis as the first ladies all get my vote, delivering three of the best TV performances of the year.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. Episode 1 of "The First Lady" premieres Sunday on Showtime. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about developments relating to the midterms, the election which will determine who controls Congress. My guest will be New York Times political correspondent Shane Goldmacher. Recently, he's written about how wealthy Republicans are forming secret coalitions to gain influence outside of the party machinery and about how the primaries are testing Trump's power within the Republican Party. I hope you'll join us.

I also want to remind you about our new FRESH AIR newsletter, which is written by two of our producers, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Seth Kelley. They write about what's happening behind the scenes of the show and include staff recommendations, a roundup of the week's interviews, links to articles, music and videos related to our interviews and more. The newsletter is called Fresh Air Weekly, and it's a very enjoyable read. You can subscribe to Fresh Air Weekly at www.whyy.org/freshair. And you actually really need to put in the WWW for reasons I can't explain, but that's www.whyy.org/freshair.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "CONFESSIN' (THAT I LOVE YOU)")

GROSS: We'll close with a recording by jazz pianist Jessica Williams. She died last month, one week before her 74th birthday. She came to our studio in 1997 to play and talk about her music. We'll feature that performance and interview Friday on our show.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "CONFESSIN' (THAT I LOVE YOU)")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS' "CONFESSIN' (THAT I LOVE YOU)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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