Showtime’s new biographical series about Michelle Obama, Betty Ford, and Eleanor Roosevelt is shooting for the not-that-lofty status of awards-bait hagiography and only manages to achieve choppy melodrama, hamstrung by its own clunky writing. Still, the show could have passed through my brain as just another entry in the long list of glossy-but-ultimately-disappointing prestige TV series, alongside The Gilded Age, The Morning Show, and Nine Perfect Strangers, if it weren’t for one thing: Those fucking mouths.
The First Lady, which debuts on Showtime Sunday, stars Viola Davis as Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Roosevelt. It’s a stellar line-up of some of our best and most beloved actresses, but Davis and Anderson’s performances are bogged down by their nearly cartoonish impressions of the iconic women. Some aspects almost work (Davis conjures a fair Michelle Obama voice), and others do not (Anderson’s mid-Atlantic accent misses the mark). Yet none of it is as bad as the mouths.
Anderson dons a pair of fake teeth for the role, though she still looks almost nothing like Eleanor Roosevelt and a whole lot like Gillian Anderson with fake teeth. Besides adding little to her characterization of Roosevelt, the chompers are just distracting. In any given scene, all I can see are her lips arching over said teeth in a way that is perhaps supposed to seem patrician, but instead reads a bit ghoulish. Davis appears to be prosthetic-free, but spends half the series pursing her lips in a physical impression that feels Saturday Night Live-worthy. When Roosevelt feels pique or discomfort, Anderson’s lips tremble over the fake overbite. Davis purses a lot, but you can tell Michelle’s really going through it when she purses extra hard.
Each real-life first lady has gone on the record talking about the state of their pearly whites. Roosevelt wrote in one of her columns that prominent teeth run in her family, and that, after cracking her front teeth in a fall, she had them replaced with false ones. Michelle Obama talked teeth with kids who visited the White House in 2016. “My bottom teeth stick out a little bit,” she told them. “And if I had had braces, they would be fixed by now. So for all of you who don’t like your braces, you will appreciate it when you’re my age.”
Still, when I think Eleanor Roosevelt, I think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not “overbite queen.” When I think of Michelle Obama, I think “accomplished attorney and path-breaking first lady,” not “shoulda gotten those braces.” Why The First Lady decided to opt for mouth-based characterizations for both is anyone’s guess.
Critics aren’t loving the series so far: It currently holds just 33% on Rotten Tomatoes. And its failings aren’t all on Davis and Anderson; the whole series is full of sketch-show level imitations. Kiefer Sutherland’s FDR is just plain bad, and O-T Fagbenle impersonates Barack Obama with a skill that would have made him a mildly viral YouTube presence in the late 2000s. The show’s saving graces are Jayme Lawson, who plays a young Michelle without indulging in any mouth stuff, and Pfeiffer, whose performance as Ford is the least self-conscious of the leading trio.
If The First Lady had presented a world in which Eleanor Roosevelt just happens to look a lot like Dana Scully, and Michelle Obama bears an uncanny resemblance to Annalise Keating, I’d have happily bought in. Instead, we got the overdrawn eyebrows, the bad accents, and those cringe-worthy, distracting, and deeply embarrassing mouths.