‘The First Lady’ is an Acting Showcase

Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson as Elenor Roosevelt in The First Lady

We’re living in a golden era for famous people playing famous political figures. In the last year alone, we’ve seen Clive Owen as Bill Clinton in American Crime Story: Impeachment, Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana in Diana, and Oscar-winners Julia Roberts and Sean Penn as Martha and John Mitchell in Starz’s Watergate dramatization Gaslit. The new SHOWTIME series The First Lady continues the trend, with a trio of acclaimed actresses playing some of the most important women in political history.

Viola Davis plays Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer is Betty Ford, and Gillian Anderson portrays Elenor Roosevelt in the new series, which airs Sundays at 9pm ET. Collectively, these actors have accrued 21 nominations, an Oscar, six Emmys, and a Tony award; if you weren’t already aware of their talents, you haven’t been paying attention. Still, portraying a public figure provides a unique challenge: Because audiences are already familiar with the characters they’re depicting, there’s a clear barometer to measure the accuracy against.

All three actors meet the moment. The internet may be having fun with some of her choices, but Davis does a great job of mimicking Michelle Obama’s mannerisms and speech, especially when you consider the disparity in their appearance. Fresh off of her Emmy win as former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Anderson is very convincing as Roosevelt. And while Betty Ford’s name is perhaps better known than her face, Pfeiffer is fantastic in the part. The supporting cast is filled out with other big names like Aaron Eckhart as Gerald Ford, Keifer Sutherland as FDR, and O.T. Fagbenle of The Handmaids Tale as Barack Obama (like Davis, what he lacks in resemblance he more than makes up for in physical and vocal affectations). 

Beyond the acting, The First Lady is notable for its distinctive structure. The show doesn’t just flit back-and-forth between the three main characters, it jumps around in their own lives. A scene with Barack and Michelle moving into the White House is followed by a flashback to the early days of his campaign, while the Roosevelt storyline hops between key moments in Elenor’s marriage and her childhood. 

The First Lady keeps its focus on the three central characters, foregrounding their stories in a way that feels enlightening about their lives, as well as the accomplishments of their spouses. Obama, Ford, and Roosevelt may be among the most famous women to occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but The First Lady proves there’s still a lot to discover and admire about them. Ditto for the actresses bringing them to life.