Why the Kennedys hate “The Kennedys”: Episodes 1 & 2

By Stacey Harrison

Regardless of whatever the real story may be, The Kennedys miniseries will always be remembered as the show the real-life Kennedys didn’t want you to see. After History abruptly dropped the eight-part drama that up to then had been its most ambitious project to date, eyebrows were raised. The reason the network gave, that the series it had commissioned — and presumably read the script for — all of a sudden didn’t fit its brand, only raised suspicions.

The prevailing wisdom said that the surviving Kennedy clan — namely Caroline Kennedy and Maria Shriver — leaned on some friends in high places to put the kibosh on the series. Add in the fact that noted conservative producer Joel Surnow (24) was part of the creative team and you’ve got a full-fledged, ideology-ridden controversy, which we love here in America.

After much wrangling, the upstart ReelzChannel ended up taking on the series, and began showing it tonight. We’ve screened the entire saga, and thought we’d provide a look at what moments in each episode might have gotten the family’s blue blood boiling.

(NOTE: Spoilers ahead for Episodes 1 & 2 of The Kennedys)

WHY THEY’D HATE IT

— Before the opening credits are even done rolling, JFK (Greg Kinnear) is portrayed as a pill-popper, driven to woozy delirium by the pressures of the 1960 presidential election. Now there is historical basis to this, pertaining to the president’s chronic back pain and various other ailments the public knew nothing about. But if you are a protective sort, worried that an enterprising right-winger might be on the lookout for scenes that further the perception that Republicans are the tough guys and Democrats just can’t take it, this scene will leave you squirming.

— In another early scene, Jackie (Katie Holmes) helps Jack prepare for a public appearance by helping him squeeze into a girdle. Again, not inconsistent with historical record, but definitely not the picture of youthful male vigor the president tried to project. It also begs the question (at least for me) as to how Marilyn handled the girdle.

— This is all just child’s play, though, compared to the series’ true villain: Joseph Kennedy Sr. Played with relish by Tom Wilkinson, the Kennedy patriarch rules his scions with an iron fist, manipulating their emotions and using them as pawns in his play for ultimate power. To put it in terms of another controversial miniseries about a prominent American family, he is Joe Jackson to JFK’s Michael. In one of recent television’s more subversive moments, during a scene that has all the trappings of an inspirational moment — warm photography, swelling music — Joe shares a drink with his sons and says this: “It’s not what you are, it’s what people think you are. And with the right amount of money, you can make them think whatever you want. We’re on our way, boys. This country is ours for the taking.” Yay, democracy!

— Also from the “Joe Kennedy loves democracy” file: To help JFK win his first congressional seat, Pa Kennedy quickly arranges to have a dummy candidate with the same name as JFK’s opponent put on the ballot to confuse voters. He also admits to falsifying JFK’s medical record in order to allow him to serve in the Navy. Upon JFK’s winning the presidency, Bobby comments as to how it was a historically close election, Joe Sr. replies, “You think I’d pay for a landslide?” Ouch.

— In addition to being a crooked politician, and an unabashed supporter of the appeasement policies toward Adolf Hitler, Joseph Kennedy is also shown to be a big fat racist. He freely bandies about phrases like “Polack,” “Jew boys,” and something about not wanting any “half Jap grandchildren.”

— Feminists and monogamists might have an issue with him as well, judging from his frequent dalliances with secretaries and this comment to JFK on the day of his wedding to Jackie: “Wives don’t expect fidelity, but they don’t want infidelity thrown in their faces.” He also attempts to bribe a fed-up Jackie into not filing for divorce by offering her $1 million in a trust that she can have, along with her divorce, if JFK doesn’t win the White House.

— As bad as Joseph Sr. comes off most of the time, his golden boy son Joe Jr. is an unrelenting snot, completely buying into his father’s grand presidential visions for him. When Joe Jr. meets JFK after the PT-109 incident, instead of being glad to see his brother is OK, he rails on him for being careless. He worries what his little brother’s success means for his own political future.

— Bless her heart, but Katie Holmes just isn’t convincing as Jackie. She’s saddled with a tough accent (“It’s an emotion you cahnt undustahnd!”), and she just comes off as lightweight compared with her more seasoned costars. Maybe that’s similar to Jackie’s actual dynamic within the family, but it still strikes a creaky chord while you’re watching. She’s not the only one who struggles with the accent, though. As good an actor as Wilkinson is, he’s still a very British dude trying to play American. As such, his accent is hopelessly muddled, at times recognizably British, but at others it morphs into some halfhearted New England speak. Sometimes in the same sentence. Yet even when the accents are spot-on (Kinnear and Pepper pull it off), they’re still hard to take seriously. It makes you realize — as if you need any help  — just how important the “theater” part is in political theater. You can watch someone with a thick accent and broadly drawn mannerisms make a speech on national television, and it comes off as dramatic and filled with gravitas. But in those more personal, intimate moments, those same mannerisms you know all too well just seem laughable, like an impressionist trying to do drama.

The first couple of Kennedys episodes weren’t two bad hours of television, and I didn’t find myself out and out hating them as characters … yet. JFK is quite the sympathetic character, the dutiful son who feels trapped by his father’s megalomaniacal visions, and Bobby is worthy of respect. Even Joe Sr. has his moments, confiding in a priest that he needs a holy man to pray for JFK (who is MIA at the time) because Joe believes he’s sinned too much for God to listen to him. Still, from the real-life Kennedys’ perspective, it can’t be too appealing to think of the family’s intimate moments being played loose and fast on TV.

There’s obviously a lot more exciting and familiar events in the episodes to come. Here’s hoping they’re able to let the locations breathe a little bit. Pretty much every scene takes place in a family parlor room or a political event. There are a lot of things The Kennedys should be, but boring is not one of them.

Check back for another checklist after Episode 3 airs Tuesday night.

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