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Encore: 'First Lady' series is compelling when it dramatizes the unseen moments

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson play three of America's most distinctive presidential spouses in the limited series "The First Lady." NPR TV critic Eric Deggans had a look, and he says the program, which debuted on Showtime, works best when dramatizing events out of public view.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: "The First Lady" soars highest when it's focused on its murderers' row of actresses in its lead roles. Consider this moment, when Pfeiffer's Betty Ford explains in a speech why her husband Gerald avoided telling senators about his meeting with a psychiatrist during confirmation hearings for the vice presidency...

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

MICHELLE PFEIFFER: (As Betty Ford) It was my psychiatrist Gerry met with twice - you heard discussed in his confirmation hearings this morning. He met with my psychiatrist to support me, and I love him for that.

DEGGANS: ...Or Anderson's poise as Eleanor Roosevelt giving a 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 - nonsense. A woman is like a teabag. You never know how strong it is until it's in hot water.

DEGGANS: ...And this conversation, when "The Handmaid's Tale" alum O-T Fagbenle, playing Barack Obama, tries to calm the anger of Davis' Michelle Obama over Donald Trump's election as president.

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

VIOLA DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) A Black man can rise to the highest office in the land built on the backs of slaves, and it tears them up so much that they elect something like that?

O-T FAGBENLE: (As Barack Obama) Yo, Mich (ph)...

DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) I want to beat every single person who voted for him - all of them. I hope they get exactly what they deserve.

FAGBENLE: (As Barack Obama) This is not America.

DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) It is.

DEGGANS: This is when "The First Lady" is most compelling - dramatizing scenes that likely happened but we rarely saw in public. In examining the unique roles of three different presidential spouses from three very different time periods, the series gives us a detailed look at one of the most powerful unelected positions in American government.

Here, Anderson's Eleanor Roosevelt pushes back against an aide, played by Jackie Earle Haley, who criticizes her for speaking up in a news article.

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

JACKIE EARLE HALEY: (As Louis Howe) There is a way that things are done here.

ANDERSON: (As Eleanor Roosevelt) You know, a great political adviser once told me that I should lower the pitch of my voice so that men would not dismiss me as a frivolous woman. Now everyone is telling me to be quiet.

HALEY: (As Louis Howe) The president's advisers think his [expletive] wife should stay in the background.

DEGGANS: But such scenes also hint at "The First Lady's" biggest weakness - a tendency to hammer home points with a heavy hand. The series can feel both overlong and superficial, spending too much time on the character's early history while blazing past important later moments. And although the men playing the presidents try hard, Aaron Eckhart is seriously miscast as Gerald Ford, Kiefer Sutherland flounders as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Fagbenle seems to be doing an Obama impression imported straight from "Saturday Night Live," especially in this argument from the Obamas' early days in Chicago.

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

FAGBENLE: (As Barack Obama) Do you want me to resign and...

DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) Forget it.

FAGBENLE: (As Barack Obama) ...Take up some - what? - some [expletive] corporate lawyer job like you? Because I'm pretty sure you're miserable...

DAVIS: (As Michelle Obama) At least my job pays the bills - our bills. We actually get something out of it instead of banging my head against the wall, telling myself that I'm making a difference when I'm really not.

DEGGANS: Sometimes in watching "The First Lady," I wish they'd made three separate and better-focused movies on each of these amazing women. Still, the series offers a lot of compelling, electric moments. You just have to wade through some distractions to get there.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF LESTER NOWHERE'S "HERONS AND SEAGULLS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
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