The first woman

The first woman

When Dallas Hayden, then the wife of the Foreign Secretary, was arrested for shoplifting in 1987, it made me wonder how difficult life must be for a politician’s partner.

Is it almost like being someone and nobody at the same time? Were you expected to attend events, even giving weird speeches, but were never allowed to rock the boat? The charges against Ms Hayden were later dropped after medical evidence showed she frequently suffered from “disorientation and memory loss”.

Which brings me to The first womana new anthology series that goes behind the walls of the White House across three key eras.

And what an all-star cast it attracted: Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt.

Playing their husbands are OT Fagbenle as President Barack Obama, Aaron Eckhart as President Gerald Ford, and Kiefer Sutherland as President Franklin D. Roosevelt. But the big names don’t stop there: Ellen Burstyn, Dakota Fanning, Lily Rabe, Judy Greer, Kate Mulgrew, Clea DuVall and the Australians Eliza Scanlen, Rhys Wakefield.

All 3 eras are captured within single episodes which makes for some fleeting and sometimes frustrating snapshots of each, especially as there can be flashbacks within them. But the rewards are also many.

Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) is determined to maintain a sense of family life for her two daughters, but she doesn’t even take kindly to the suggestion that she take charge of the White House garden renovation. Her experience extends far beyond health in Chicago and as the first black First Lady, she has no plans to take a back seat. The domestic scenes with Barack look entirely authentic thanks to a perfect OT Fagbenle.

“You never wanted me in politics,” he admits.

Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) is thrust into the spotlight when Gerald Ford (Eckhart) replaces the disgraced Richard Nixon (Paul Wilson). But in the 1970s she struggles to find her place in the new administration and she is often described as having to cope with her alcohol intake.

When Franklin D. Roosevelt (Sutherland) is stricken with polio, his mother (Burstyn) wants her son to retire. Not so with her wife Eleanor Roosevelt (Gillian Anderson), whose faith in her husband remains true to America’s highest office. But the progressive that is hers, circa 1930s, is to push for a job in her husband’s administration when a chief of staff expects her to play First Lady.

“It’s not a job, Louie. This is my circumstance,” she tells him.

The era is filled with newsreels (including Katie Couric, Walter Cronkite) and archival footage. There are historic moments, Oprah, Jesse Jackson, the death of Martin Luther King’s mother, visiting dignitaries, how the media portrays Michelle Obama, even death threats.

The costumes all celebrate their respective eras, but Gillian Anderson returns to false teeth as she did for Margaret Thatcher in The Crown. Betty Ford is often in a negligee, but Michelle Obama has high hair and pearls.

The three leads are all starring in these roles, the work could offer more depth than its obvious touchstones. She makes a strong case for powerful women behind powerful men, breaking down barriers, defying taboos, even for troubled Betty Ford.

“There’s a Betty without Gerry Ford,” she says.

This could be a Emmi contender for performances (Anderson, Davis?) if not screenplay and is one of Paramount’s most attractive offers yet.

Hillary Clinton for S2?

The First Lady premieres Monday, April 18 on Paramount+.