'The Kennedys' Review: Viewers Will Be 'Sadly Disappointed'

 2010 Kennedys Productions (Ontario) Inc

If someone in the Kennedy family really did pressure the History channel to drop its $25 million miniseries The Kennedys, they shouldn’t have bothered with all the fuss. All the ink that was spilled on the machinations behind History changing course — and others turning it down until it was picked up by ReelzChannel — only increased the curiosity.

Let’s douse that straight away. Kennedys feels like a paint-by-numbers recitation of history and a not-very-sordid waste of artistic license. Do the Kennedys look bad in this miniseries? No, they look like cartoons, and anyone with any interest in politics or family dynasties will be sadly disappointed by the caricatures.

It’s quite a time for historical dramas, with The Borgias and Camelot also hitting the air. Now Kennedys taps into that other Camelot and, like the others, takes liberties with events as we know them in an attempt, one would assume, to ratchet up the drama. But it can’t even make much of the facts of an absorbing, mythic story, let alone create much intrigue with pill-popping and sex.

Kennedys says the same things over and over. Like how Joseph Kennedy kept telling Jack and Bobby that they were mere shadows of their brother, Joe, who died in combat. Or that Jack was a ladies’ man. Or that the Kennedys were Catholic. It’s hard to focus when you keep looking up to dodge the anvil coming at your head.

If there’s an issue the Kennedy family might have had reason to be annoyed about, it’s the damning portrayal of Joseph Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson). But they need not have worried. The patriarch is the biggest cartoon in the miniseries, so manipulative — Machiavellian, really — that even Wilkinson’s exceptional talent can’t rein it in. You lose count of the times Joe talks about throwing money at a problem. Everything and every person is for sale. Everything can be solved with money. The world can be bought. Anvil. Anvil. Anvil.

In some perverse way, Joe Sr. is taking one for the team here. He should be billed in the credits as Evil Puppet Master because that’s how he’s portrayed. Every time the camera cuts to him, you half expect Wilkinson to do an evil “bwahahahaha” laugh. He’s the Snidely Whiplash of American politics. He even hates God, by the way.

The problem with the Kennedy family sparing even a moment, if that’s true, in dissuading History to drop the miniseries is that its unwatchable nature would have done the work for them in less than two hours. One of the controversies surrounding the miniseries is that former 24 executive producer Joel Surnow, a — gasp! — Republican, was behind it. But when you watch Kennedys, it’s not a political viewpoint that ruins it so much as the leaden nature of the storytelling (it was written by Stephen Kronish, a former 24 producer who, according to The New York Times, describes himself as liberal).

Republican, liberal, whatever. Kennedys is as snooze-worthy as a 650-page piece of legislative mishmash about organic farming.

Because Kennedys was made for History, it’s not like you’re going to find any of the sex and nudity of Borgias or Camelot. There’s barely even any bad language.

So what do you get instead? Funny accents. It’s like Kennedys hired Diamond Joe Quimby from The Simpsons as its voice coach.

And then there’s the acting. The cast should have known that biographical dramas come with inherent dangers. For instance, every time Katie Holmes comes onscreen as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, you think, “That’s Katie Holmes.” Or, “That’s Katie Holmes having the damndest time with Jackie’s accent.” It’s as if getting “the look” right was most of the battle. Kennedys might be Holmes’ Bay of Pigs.

Greg Kinnear pulls off JFK half the time — the rest, you wonder why he’s trying to make him seem so dumb. Barry Pepper, as Bobby, manages to embody the character perfectly, but that might have something to do with Pepper being a bit less famous than, say, Holmes. Wilkinson’s acting chops allow him to pull off Joe, but then there’s the issue of the writing making him as overblown as something in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Honestly, they should have just put him in a bear suit.

Diana Hardcastle as Rose Kennedy also can’t escape the accent or the writing, particularly because she has to be the Crazy Catholic caricature.

If you’re thinking Kennedys is a drinking game just waiting to be born, yes, it is. (Drink whenever Holmes tilts her head to the side; drink when Joe Kennedy is being a jerk, etc.) But if you’re thinking that this miniseries is so bad it’s good, you need to be disabused of that notion immediately.

Kennedys is a hamfisted mess — it’s slothful in its pacing and whatever underlying message was meant to be given is nebulous. It’s not the Kennedy family or legacy that suffers here, but the people involved in the project. They had better hope viewers can’t find Reelz on their channel lineup.

Airdate 8-10 p.m. Sunday, April 3

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