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‘The First Lady’ Review: Showtime Anthology Puts the Spotlight on the Women Behind the Men

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Is there a more thankless job in all of Washington, D.C. than first lady? The position is subject to an unreal amount of media scrutiny (second only to the president), requires a ridiculous number of wardrobe changes and demands the patience of a saint — all for the annual salary of… nothing.

Yet despite all outward appearances, being first lady isn’t a job. It’s a “circumstance,” says Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson) in Showtime’s “The First Lady,” an anthology drama series that explores how she, Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) ended up in such a high-profile, influential, and often fraught circumstance.

Executive produced by Susanne Bier (“The Undoing,” “The Night Manager”), who also directs all 10 episodes, “The First Lady” doesn’t move chronologically or profile each woman individually; rather, the show works to find parallels between arguably three of the most popular (and influential) first ladies ever.

The first episode focuses on their very different paths to the White House: For instance, when we first meet Betty Ford, she’s doing a cha-cha with a cocktail shaker, dreaming of retirement to sunny Palm Springs; minutes later, Gerald (Aaron Eckhart) is hand-picked to replace the disgraced Spiro Agnew as Nixon’s VP, and well… you know the rest.

Viola Davis Was ‘Absolutely Terrified’ to Play Michelle Obama in ‘The First Lady’

Another episode flashes back to the women’s early encounters with and weddings to the men who would later be presidents: We see a young Barack Obama (an extremely stiff Julian De Niro) courting fellow lawyer Michelle Robinson (Jayme Lawson); she calls him “half-Black Superman.”

Yet another ep centers on controversial issues: Betty’s decidedly un-GOP effort to ratify the ERA, which really ticks off Donald Rumsfeld (Derek Cecil) and Dick Cheney (Rhys Wakefield), the terrible twosome who bank on Betty’s popularity but loathe her perpetual outspokenness; the legalization of gay marriage, which President Obama (now played by a much more charismatic O-T Fagbenle) was slow to endorse publicly; Eleanor’s affair with journalist Lorena “Hick” Hickock (Lily Rabe), here portrayed in great detail and presented with photographic evidence to FDR (Kiefer Sutherland). Over the end credits of that one, incidentally, you’ll hear OMD’s “Enola Gay” — actually a bouncy synth-pop song about the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, but let’s not quibble.

All of the women are given equal time, but Betty Ford emerges as the most fascinating first lady. Davis turns in a predictably fierce performance as Michelle Obama — just watch her telling self-professed political bodyguard Rahm Emanuel (Michael Aronov) that she objects to his plan to turn her into a couture-wearing glorified gardener, and that she won’t be some “Stepford FLOTUS.” But her story is still so fresh in our minds. (Plus, if we want to see her stumping for Hillary Clinton in 2016, we can just go on YouTube.) And as remarkable as Eleanor Roosevelt was, her character in “The First Lady” is basically built on aphorisms and platitudes (“A woman is like a tea bag; you never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water”). Not to mention an extremely prominent set of teeth to make Anderson appear appropriately dowdy.

Showtime

Betty Ford was a former Martha Graham dancer, and a woman with a past (she was—gasp!—a divorcée when she married Gerald). She was the wife of a Republican president, but she supported abortion rights and women’s rights. She told the public about her breast cancer and her mastectomy — not exactly dinner-table conversation in 1974 — because, she explained, “American women need to take their health into their own hands.” And later, when she came to terms with her alcohol and painkiller addictions, she told the public about that too, eventually founding the famous treatment center that bears her name.

That’s just good stuff, and Pfeiffer’s performance is the perfect mix of sharp, feisty, and flamboyant. Apologies to Eleanor and Michelle — both great first ladies indeed — but Betty’s life could be a series in itself.

“The First Lady” premieres April 17 on Showtime.

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