Picked off the History Channel scrap heap, The Kennedys looked like a game-changer for Reelz back in 2011. It brought big (by Reelz standards) ratings and proved to be a surprising (because it wasn’t very good) Emmy favorite, earning several technical trophies and a still-surprising victory for Barry Pepper’s latex-enhanced performance as Bobby Kennedy.
The reality is that The Kennedys wasn’t really a true game-changer for Reelz because the network couldn’t work the miniseries into any sort of repeatable template. Six years later, Reelz is getting back into the game with The Kennedys: After Camelot, a sequel that few people demanded and nobody involved really knew how to make.
Although it’s based on a book by J. Randy Taraborrelli, The Kennedys: After Camelot is a two-night, four-hour mess lacking in dramatic structure or emotional and thematic beats. You can at least sense that in the Chappaquiddick incident, producer Jon Cassar had something he wanted to build to, but even that scandal is limitedly consequential, and the second night proves particularly formless.
The first Kennedys also premiered before the rebirth of the anthology miniseries and capitalized on a barren Emmy field. This will not do that.
Perhaps more appropriately titled The Kennedys: Secondary Deaths and Scandals, After Camelot begins on the night of Bobby’s assassination, which is one of several early excuses to get Pepper’s Emmy-winning dentures back onscreen. From there, it boils down to two poorly realized narratives. You have Jackie (Katie Holmes) grieving doubly, questioning her tenuous position within the Kennedy family and opening herself up to love with magnate Aristotle Onassis (Alexander Siddig).
Then you have Teddy (Matthew Perry), not even an afterthought in the first miniseries, struggling with the pressure to live up to his brothers’ legacies and with his own personal inadequacies. A third storyline with John F. Kennedy Jr. (Brett Donahue) is way too thinly researched and developed to justify its inclusion at all and might as well not be mentioned.
The Jackie story has no real narrative cohesion, but it boasts a fine performance by Holmes, who also directed the third of the series’ hours. It hurts Holmes’ cause that writer Stephen Kronish decided to weave in the same Life magazine interview with Theodore H. White that was the basis for the recent feature Jackie because it forces comparisons with Natalie Portman’s Oscar-nominated performance. The interview serves no purpose within the 1968-and-beyond frame of this miniseries and is just an excuse to include gratuitous recollections of the JFK assassination in a second half desperate for sizzle. If you don’t make comparisons, there’s a lot to like in Holmes’ enigmatic work, which captures Jackie’s Mona Lisa smile and some of the softness of her voice and accent. Kronish and Cassar, director of the other three hours, don’t have much of a read on the Jackie/Ari romance, but there are fleeting moments of sweetness only partially marred by a makeup job on Siddig that is, to put it kindly, aggressive.
As Teddy, Perry is a minor disaster, but I place no blame at all on the Friends veteran. This was stunt casting where somebody decided the potential reward was worth the risk, and then it turned out not to be. It’s hardly Perry’s fault that he looks absolutely nothing like Teddy, sounds virtually nothing like him and has been handed a superficial “boy prince as buffoon” interpretation of a figure who, even if you utterly condemn him for his flaws and misdeeds, was clearly much more complicated than that.
In 1969, at the time of Chappaquiddick, Teddy Kennedy was strikingly young. That’s not an excuse or an explanation. He was still old enough to be responsible for what happened to Mary Jo Kopechne, but with Cassar and Kronish’s interpretation of the event being the most damning and infantilizing one possible, Perry is forced to play a much younger man behaving even younger still, and the result is pretty laughable. Chappaquiddick bridges the two nights, and Perry’s blubbering, stuttering work is a stew of bad choices for the 20 minutes of the series that should have been its most essential. Otherwise, the actor is just incongruous, but not horrible. Without being especially consistent, he doesn’t go full Mayor Quimby on Teddy’s accent, and he’s got a couple of OK scenes with the very good Kristen Hager as Teddy’s wife Joan. Hager is much closer to appropriate casting, but her age discrepancy with Perry makes it look like Joan was practically a child bride, which is another good way for the producers to show their contempt for Teddy’s superficiality.
The only Kennedy the storytellers don’t seem to hate — I guess they feel sympathy for Jackie, at least — is Diana Hardcastle’s Rose, or maybe Hardcastle is so strong that her patrician battle-ax cuts through the blubber.
Really, there’s nothing Perry or Holmes can do about how little interest Cassar and Kronish have in the substance of these people’s lives. The miniseries is invested almost wholly in gaffes and embarrassments and fights. You get fewer than five minutes of screen time for Teddy Kennedy as a legislator (or presidential candidate), and any post-Onassis life for Jackie is reduced to a fit of pique at the publication of Jeffrey Archer’s Shall We Tell the President? that nobody who doesn’t already know the story will be able to take any meaning from. The last 45 minutes of the miniseries is an almost impatient charge toward people dying, like a humorless parody of the Six Feet Under finale.
Basically, if the approach to this entire miniseries was, “After Jack and Bobby died, nothing was the same and nothing was really worth caring about again,” maybe this didn’t need to be made at all. Viewers sure don’t need to invest four hours.
Cast: Katie Holmes, Matthew Perry, Alexander Siddig, Kristen Hager, Brett Donahue, Diana Hardcastle, Kristin Booth
Airs Sunday, April 2, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT and Sunday, April 9, at 9 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT on Reelz.