If there’s one thing that’s made abundantly clear in Showtime’s The First Lady, it’s that these presidents would be completely lost without their wives.
With its focus on three of America’s most popular First Ladies, the immensely entertaining anthology series stars Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt. It follows each of their lives as young women meeting their future husbands, new wives balancing marriage with their partners’ ambitions and First Ladies finding their way through the spotlight.
Obviously, we’re here to talk about Viola as Michelle, but before I get to how great she is, I absolutely need to mention that Anderson and Pfeiffer are equally powerful and captivating as they breathe new life into the women we thought we knew everything about.
Now, about Viola’s transformative performance: she’s LeBron James and Michael Jordan. Every time she’s on screen, we expect greatness and she never fails to deliver. It’s not like we ever forget we’re watching Viola, because she’s Viola, but at the same time her full commitment to the Forever First Lady’s movements and vocal cadence completely draw us into every aspect of her story. She becomes Michelle (no pun intended).
The Oscar-winner is superb as she delivers a look at the Michelle we imagine very few people get to see. This is the private “Southside of Chicago” Michelle, not the polished First Lady who has to be perfect at all times. Do I think the series is 100 percent accurate? No, it’s a TV show. However, I hope there are a few moments that are true, as I want to live in a world where Michelle Obama frequently drops f-bombs and had a bad-ass showdown with Hillary before she spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. You heard me right: there’s a scene where Michelle calls out Hillary for her casual white woman racism in the 2008 campaign. I desperately need that to be a thing that actually happened.
Never for one moment did I question whether Viola Davis would give an amazing performance. However, Michelle Obama is so beloved and well-known, it would be a big ask for anyone to stand in her shoes. It would’ve been so easy for the Emmy-winner to do an impression, but easy isn’t her style. She crafts the beautifully complex character of a smart, independent woman who must put her own ambitions aside to support her husband’s history-making career. She’s also a Black woman who must swallow the ugliest, most invasive forms of racism to protect her family and her own mental peace. The Fences star gives us an interesting new character who just happens to be named Michelle Obama.
While the episodes play around with time, jumping from the 1920s to ‘70s to present day, there’s a very clear throughline of Episode 1 starting with each woman’s move to the White House and Episode 10 covering their post-Washington lives. But don’t worry, the time jumps are not at all jarring and are easy to follow. In fact they enhance the overall theme of the series, intertwining the journey of each First Lady.
Despite the differences in the era they live in, age and race, Eleanor, Betty and Michelle are in part living the same story. As Eleanor is repeatedly being forced into a box she’s clearly too big for, Rahm Emmanuel, President Obama’s first chief of staff, butts heads with Michelle over her desire to be more involved—while Betty’s secretary is strongly encouraged to make her less outspoken and smaller. Of course, none of these misogynistic tactics work, because we wouldn’t be talking about these women if they hadn’t changed the system.
With the unforgettable performances of three actresses at the top of their game, The First Lady is a captivating journey through the history that played out behind the cameras and headlines. Yes, it clearly takes some liberties, but it also had me looking for books on Eleanor Roosevelt and Betty Ford, so I call that a win.
The First Lady airs Sundays at 9/8c on Showtime.