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The Kennedys : Is the Controversial TV Series Any Good?

4 minute read
James Poniewozik

Political TV docudramas, not unlike the Bay of Pigs invasion, are proxy wars. The battles over them tend to be less about their lasting effect on history and more about a camp’s power to protect its icons. Conservatives agitated CBS into pulling The Reagans in 2003, saying it cast the Gipper as a bigot and a nitwit (it eventually ran on Showtime). Before ABC’s The Path to 9/11 aired in 2006, former Clinton aides blasted it as unfair to their Administration. If people remember anything about those two miniseries, it’s probably the controversies, not the acting.

So it will be with The Kennedys , developed for the History Channel by Joel Surnow, creator of 24 and a self-described conservative (in partnership with screenwriter Stephen Kronish, a self-described liberal). Before the cameras even rolled, the series was attacked by Kennedy associates and some historians, who decried early, leaked excerpts as a political smear. Defenders of the project argued that the network was being unduly pressured by politically interested parties and Kennedy family members.

(See behind the scenes in the Kennedy White House.)

In January, History announced it was dropping the eight-part series, saying it was “not a fit” for its brand (unlike, say, reality shows about pawnshops and ice-road truckers). The show was turned down by several networks and was finally bought by Reelz, a movie channel occupying reaches of the dial calculable only by advanced math; it premieres April 3.

I’ve seen The Kennedys , and however outrageous early drafts may have been, the final product may be the least shocking “controversial” TV drama you’ll ever watch. Certainly it resists viewing the family through Rose Kennedy — colored glasses; a running theme is the blunt ambition of patriarch Joseph Kennedy Sr. (Tom Wilkinson) and his willingness to use the family money to buy power. There’s some suggestive gossip, debatable in historical detail (two words: Marilyn Monroe), and the first time we see JFK, he’s popping pills for back pain.

(See the Kennedy brothers as part of the top 10 political prodigies.)

But this is all the stuff of past books and numerous miniseries that generated less partisan heat, maybe because no Hollywood conservatives were involved. As for John F. and Robert F. Kennedy — the story ends in 1969, and Teddy is nowhere to be seen — The Kennedys presents them as men of deep (at least public) integrity. It tells us JFK (Greg Kinnear), in so many words, “saved the world” in the Cuban missile crisis, portrays Bobby (Barry Pepper) as a principled if zealous scrapper and puts them squarely on the right side in the civil rights struggle.

The Kennedys is also — in case anyone cares — pretty bad TV: melodramatic, rote and grim. As Jackie, Katie Holmes juggles about five competing accents, all incorrect. Kinnear gets JFK’s gravitas (and accent) but not his charisma. The most vivid character is pushy paterfamilias Joe, and after he suffers a stroke in 1962, the series feels hobbled as well. The eight hours jerk from obligatory historical scene to familiar biographical moment, held together by the most clichéd theme: that this American dynasty reached great power at a great price.

The Kennedys might have been better if it were more political or at least had a better-defined take. Historical miniseries shouldn’t pass off lies as truth, but there’s a reason docu dramas are not docu mentaries : they show history from a subjective viewpoint, be it Oliver Stone’s or William Shakespeare’s. They use facts and dialogue in the service of story and insight. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s part of how history’s argument is carried out.

As it is, you get a more vibrant feel for the ’60s ferment from the fictional Mad Men than from the factional wax museum of The Kennedys . After this experience, 24’s Surnow might want to go back to making up things for series TV. The results would probably feel more lifelike.

This article originally appeared in the April 11, 2011 issue of TIME.

See Sen. Ted Kennedy speaking at the 2008 Democratic convention.

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