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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 a legion of other channels turning it down until it was picked up by movie channel Reelz — 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 enough interest in politics and family dynasties will be sadly disappointed by the caricatures.
It’s been quite a time for historical dramas, what with Showtime’s The Borgias and Starz’s Camelot airing this week. Now Reelz 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. Kennedys, however, can’t even make much of pill-popping and sex, let alone create much intrigue with the actual facts of an absorbing, mythic life.
Extracting a reason to watch this miniseries must have been some undertaking.
Kennedys always feels like it’s telling you something repeatedly. Like how Joseph Kennedy kept telling Jack and Bobby that they were mere shadows of their older brother, Joe, who died in combat. Or that Jack’s a ladies man. Or that the Kennedys were Catholic. It’s hard to focus on the miniseries when you keep looking up to dodge the anvil coming at your head.
If there’s an issue that the Kennedy family might have had good reason to be annoyed about, it’s the damning portrayal of Joseph Kennedy (Tom Wilkinson). But again, they need not have worried. The patriarch of the Kennedy clan 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 the “Evil Puppet Master” because that’s how he’s portrayed — working his “plan” to first get Joe Jr. then Jack and Bobby into office. 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 a moment, if that’s true, in dissuading History to drop the miniseries, is that its unwatchable nature would have done the trick 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 the miniseries, 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.
Since Kennedys was made for History, it’s not like you’re going to find any of the sex and nudity that Borgias or Camelot gets away with. There’s barely 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 on screen as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, you think, “That’s Katie Holmes.” Or, “That’s Katie Holmes having the damndest time with Jackie’s accent.” You are never transported somewhere else by the character because the real-life subjects are so distinctive in your mind.
It’s not as drastic with Greg Kinnear as Jack, but he doesn’t provide much distance between actor and character. With Holmes, it’s as if getting “the look” right was most of the battle. Once she talks, the veneer cracks. With Kinnear, he pulls off Kennedy half the time, and the rest you wonder why he’s trying to make Kennedy seem so dumb. Barry Pepper, as Bobby, manages to embody the character perfectly, and you forget you’re watching biographical fiction — 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 (a man not nearly as visually omnipresent and thus memorable as his children). But then there’s the issue of the writing making him a cartoon on scale with 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 that Kennedys is a drinking game just waiting to be born, yes, that’s true. (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 that it’s good, you need to be disabused of that notion immediately.
Kennedys is a hamfisted mess, both slothful in its pacing and leaden in whatever underlying message was meant to be given. It’s not the Kennedy family or legacy that suffers here, but the people involved in the project. They had better hope people can’t find Reelz on their channel lineup.
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Tracee Ellis Ross