The Kennedys

The Kennedys debuts tonight on Reelz Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

The opening credits for each part of writer-producer Joel Surnow’s controversial miniseries The Kennedys end with a rapid, minute-long montage of some of the most famous moments of the Kennedy era: the Bay Of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dealey Plaza, et cetera. It’s like one of those teasers that TV series stick at the end of their first episode. “Coming up this season… on The Kennedys!”

And that’s fitting, since The Kennedys is very much a TV show. Dogged by pre-production criticism and bounced from The History Channel for being “not a fit” with their brand, this eight-part mini-series has landed on the little-known Reelz Channel, where it’ll be running tonight and for the next five nights. (Two parts on Sunday, one part each on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, then the final two parts next Sunday.) It’s a mini in the old ‘70s/‘80s mold: sweeping and soapy. There’s nothing visionary or innovative in the approach to the material. It’s a total throwback.

The stodginess has some appeal. As John F. Kennedy, Greg Kinnear is both charismatic and affable; he doesn’t overdo the accents or the mannerisms. Barry Pepper makes a good Robert Kennedy, acting as confidant and conscience for his brother. And the mini has a solid structure, too. Each episode focuses primarily on one major event—aside from the first two, which deal with election day 1960, and the last two, which deal with the assassination and its aftermath—with flashbacks that fill in the backstory of the Kennedy clan. And because each is just an hour long (or 45 minutes, minus commercials), the time breezes right by.

But let’s face it: The main reason most in-the-know folks will want to watch The Kennedys is to see how much of a train wreck it is. And I’m afraid on that score, people will be largely disappointed.

Don’t get me wrong: There’s plenty that’s off-key here, starting with the accents. Kinnear’s is fine, and Pepper’s is acceptable, but Tom Wilkinson as patriarch Joseph Kennedy is all over the map, and Enrico Colantoni is so broad and cartoony as J. Edgar Hoover that it’s a wonder he doesn’t bust out laughing after every line. (Though it is nice to see Sheriff Keith Mars land such a plum job.) And Katie Holmes… ye gods, Katie Holmes. Beyond the problem of her fluctuating, vaguely mob-moll-ish accent, Holmes just seems overmatched and artificial in every scene she’s in, whether she’s flirting with a young Jack by stiffly asking, “Whaddaya do when yer not congressin’?” or she’s explaining her lack of enthusiasm for becoming first lady by coldly telling her sister-in-law, “I rarely buhst, Ethel.” 

It doesn’t help that The Kennedys forces Holmes, Colantoni, and Wilkinson into such old-fashioned melodrama. Pepper and Kinnear largely escape unscathed. Aside from a scene from early in Jack’s political career where he bombs as a public speaker—complete with that telltale sign of failure, the accidental microphone feedback—the Kennedy brothers mostly get to stand around in The Oval Office making crucial decisions and looking cool. As Jackie, though, Holmes has to answer her mother’s warnings that her husband will never be faithful by wailing, “Why can’t ya just be happy for me?” and she has to fret over how her hectic First Lady schedule is keeping her from having coloring-time with Caroline. Colantoni’s Hoover, meanwhile, is a sneaky blowhard who boasts of circumventing the authority of the executive branch, and Wilkinson’s Joe Kennedy is an amoral string-puller who curses the crucifix when his oldest son dies in combat and walks up to Jack on his wedding day and advises, “Wives don’t expect fidelity, but they don’t want infidelity thrown in their faces… Above all, make sure the girls are discreet.”

Then there are all the minor aesthetic blunders. The music’s too wall-to-wall, and Surnow and company make a number of weird choices—like casting a different actor as Jack Kennedy for scenes that take place just a few years before ones featuring Kinnear—that throw the viewer off for no legitimate reason. A lot of the early criticism of The Kennedys focused on Surnow’s staunch support of the Republican party (he was a co-creator of 24, and the creator of the Fox news comedy show The 1/2 Hour News Hour), but this mini-series isn’t especially right-leaning it its take on Kennedy’s politics, outside of the complete exclusion of Ted Kennedy from what is often a rosy family portrait. The Kennedys is awfully dishy, though, reaching its nadir in Part Seven with an awkwardly staged scene where Bobby Kennedy tells a smitten Marilyn Monroe that she’s going to have to stop seeing his brother. (Even more distasteful: The Marilyn scenes are flashbacks, intercut with the president’s fateful trip to Texas.)

But that dishiness can be entertaining, too, and not just in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Surnow and company make an honest effort to document the changes in American politics in the mid-20th-century, from Joe Kennedy using dirty tricks and mob influence to win campaigns to Jack and Bobby’s more sophisticated backroom tactics. The Kennedys also plays up the tensions of the times—the noisy protests of alienated white southerners, the anti-communist panic—and finds uncanny connections to the world of 2011. (Intentionally or not, the scenes of Kennedy ordering covert action in Cuba seem eerily like what’s going right now with President Obama’s efforts in Libya.) And there’s a clear contrast between family man Bobby, who spends his idle hours doing the bunny hop around his house with his brood, and the more dissolute Jack and Jackie, who rely on pills and injections from “Dr. Feelgood” to keep up with their hectic schedules.

It’s just that there’s no moment in The Kennedys that isn’t underlined, no moment where the viewer could look at the screen and think, “I wonder what’s going through that dude’s mind?” And the miniseries’ insistence on weaving together the Kennedys’ most famous public moments with intimate private ones leads to some bizarre, borderline offensive juxtapositions. While JFK is being assassinated, a stroke-ridden Joe Kennedy is struggling to stand up out of his wheelchair. (When he does, he immediately hears the news that the president’s been shot and plops back down. Cue sad trombone.) As James Meredith is being blocked at the doors of the University of Mississippi, Rose Kennedy is worried because Joe won’t eat. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Jack has to call Jackie occasionally to see if she’s still mad about his latest affair. (No worries… after the crisis is over, Jackie beams with love and tells Caroline, “Ya daddy just saved da woild.”)

And that’s the biggest problem with The Kennedys. Even though it’s based on actual historical events—and stacks of scandal-mongering tell-all books, apparently—very little about it feels real. It’s more like a lost season of The West Wing, populated by fictional characters. Will Jackie forgive Jack for his indiscretions? Will Jack be sympathetic to Jackie’s speed addiction? Will Joe’s power-play with the mob prove costly? Could we maybe skip the trip to Dallas this season? Anything seems possible in The Kennedys. This is history writ with Lite-Brite.

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