Despite the singular title, The First Lady is actually the story of three separate first ladies living in three separate eras that don’t quite overlap. It’s not quite clear how much Eleanor Roosevelt, Betty Ford and Michelle Obama have in common, apart from each being married to the man about to become the most powerful person in the world – and for that matter, it’s unclear why the series didn’t just become an anthology telling the individual story of one particular first lady each season, so the result we get is two relatively decent subplots – one involving Michelle Obama as her husband launches his presidential campaign and she finds herself caught between her career and public life, another one involving Betty Ford coming to terms with her husband unexpectedly becoming president, and one that’s a bit convoluted and melodramatic as Eleanor Roosevelt helps her husband through polio and a run for governor after a failed bid for the vice presidency.
There are individual scenes that work well on their own, but this is largely due to the performances – in a show that stars two Oscar-winning actresses – rather than the written material itself. There’s not really a whole lot of insight into why their husbands are aspiring to the highest office in the land – and not really any unique perspectives that the three vignettes have to offer that couldn’t have been obtained through a PBS documentary covering the same material. FDR’s debilitating illness gets an incredibly awkward presentation – happening abruptly in the scene after the character’s introduction – while also leaving out many of the aspects of FDR and Eleanor’s marriage that made it a complex one following his journey into politics. It’s one thing to combine stories in one narrative touching on a similar theme – but the transitions happen in such a jarring and disconnected way that it becomes difficult to emotionally connect with the characters. It’s not just a jump back and forth in time, but each character’s lives are shuffled back and forth – jumping a year back or ahead at some points with little notice – while then flashing back to events from 30 years earlier.
There’s a fairly rich history to draw from – and most former first ladies of the nation left behind fairly large archives of correspondence, but the series by and large just chooses to play it safe – showing a little of the perspectives of three women filling the same role over three eras with different social mores. There’s also the potential for it to be interesting – as each of the three first ladies featured here either meet their predecessors – even if it’s a chance encounter like Betty Ford sharing a seat with Pat Nixon at an unexpected press briefing – but then these don’t really turn into anything beyond snapshots in time. Their predecessors don’t really get a whole lot of characterization and they’re largely bound by whatever might have happened at those chance meetings, with material that’s largely spread thin. It’s offering a shared experience but very little tension or drama.