They’re wealthy, lecherous, ruthless, power-hungry, drug-addicted, and they all speak with preposterous accents. No, I’m not describing the cast of an HBO fantasy series or the employees of FOX News, I’m talking about the Kennedys—or, rather, the version of the Kennedys represented in ReelzChannel’s The Kennedys, an artless troll through a gossipy chapter of American history. The greatest crime of this controversial miniseries is not its revelation of the complicated indiscretions of America’s “royal family.” Indeed, most of the infidelity, graft, and moral flimsiness discovered in this series will strike ordinary viewers—and readers of Wikipedia—as old news. What makes The Kennedys bothersome is not its overeager scandal-mongering, but its abject refusal to give any complex life at all to the characters it awkwardly attempts to assassinate.
A brief history: In 2010, the History Channel announced that it would make its first foray into scripted drama with a miniseries about the Kennedys, produced by 24‘s Joel Surnow. The project met with almost immediate criticism from historians and Kennedy familiars, including Theodore Sorensen, who claimed the leaked scripts were historically inaccurate conservative hatchet jobs. Then, in January of this year, after a few months of this hullaballoo, the History Channel announced that they wouldn’t be airing the series. Surnow, a man who knows his conspiracies, called the whole thing a sinister plot by the Kennedys themselves—including Maria Shriver and Caroline Kennedy—to get the show pulled. The miniseries eventually landed with ReelzChannel, a movie network just south of VH1 Classics in popularity, and was finally broadcast last month.
While it’s certainly possible that a cabal of surviving members of the Hyannisport gang gave the History Channel an offer they couldn’t refuse in order to prevent The Kennedys from seeing the light of day, what seems more likely is that the cable network declined to air the series simply because it isn’t very good. Each of the eight episodes is smothered in corny, literalist string swells and ponderous fadeouts, practically every line of dialogue functions as bald exposition, and complex historical events are chopped up and repackaged as petty moral dilemmas. From the conspicuously sparse set dressings to the unreal, fluorescent light slicing through drawn blinds, much of The Kennedys seems too fake to take seriously.
What’s good, even redemptive, about the miniseries, however, is the work put in by Greg Kinnear and Barry Pepper as Jack and Bobby, respectively. The narrative arc of the eight-part program goes roughly from JFK’s election in 1960 to RFK’s assassination in 1968, with plenty of pace-shattering flashbacks in between, and so Kinnear and Pepper are the most prominent actors on screen. Kinnear comes off like a B-level impressionist at first, but manages by the second episode to naturalize the mannerisms so well that it’s hard to imagine him without the accent or the floppy hair. Jack is one of the few morally ambivalent characters on a series that primarily works with a brutally simplistic psychological palate, so Kinnear has his work cut out for him, but he’s ultimately able to adapt the rakish adorability that worked so well for him on Talk Soup and in As Good As It Gets to this Oval Office.
Pepper is just fantastic though. From Saving Private Ryan to True Grit, he’s made a long career of crafting rich and memorable performances that seem tailor-made to get him noticed, but somehow don’t. (That Pepper doesn’t have at least a starring role on an HBO series yet is mind-boggling.) His RFK, nestled as it is in this ill-begotten miniseries, is bound to be another one of those revelatory roles that will do nothing to further his career. Written as the sole angel in a veritable vipers pit of hyperbolic evil, the Bobby Kennedy of The Kennedys could have easily read like a cardboard cutout, but Pepper—with a sly wit, an exhilarating temper, and a tragic goodness—manages to turn Bobby into the dramatic heart of the show. From beneath the degrading hood of a prosthetic nose at least as ridiculous as Nicole Kidman’s in The Hours, Pepper slowly creates what neither the writers nor the other actors in The Kennedys could manage: a great television character.
Nobody else fares as well. Tom Wilkinson, another amazing character actor, can’t make heads or tails of a Papa Joe Kennedy that’s a top hat and twirly mustache away from being a Hanna-Barbera villain. The best way to envision the precise way that Diane Hardcastle’s matriarch Rose Kennedy ups the camp factor of this series is to imagine Katherine Hepburn cast in Mommie Dearest. And then there’s Katie Holmes (as Jackie Kennedy), who, despite the fact that she really doesn’t get the accent, does a perfectly all right job in an inexplicably underwritten role.
The Kennedys is neither a miniseries on a par with classics like Lonesome Dove, Roots, or even The Thorn Birds, nor is it a vibrantly polemical piece of political theater like Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Despite its fine cast, it feels more like 2003’s The Reagans, a similarly tawdry and controversial television exposé of a dynasty of political heroes. The time when our politicians were regarded as saints is long over, but these shows seem motivated by nothing more than a childish fascination with revealing historical figures as—gasp!—flawed. Without satire, without emotional depth, without any sense of a critical eye interested in anything more complicated than mudslinging, The Kennedys presents itself as a perfectly good soap opera, but a particularly sad example of how low political discourse has fallen.
The image and sound of The Kennedys on DVD is fairly standard for a television movie. If image clarity is going to be an issue for you in deciding whether or not to watch it, I suggest watching something else.
The DVD comes with a 45-minute behind-the-scenes documentary called "The Kennedys: From Story to Film," which doesn't offer a terrible amount of insight beyond answering questions about what location stood in for Hyannisport in the miniseries. There are, however, some decently funny interviews with the actors about picking up New England accents that may prove useful for television audiences attempting to do the same.
The Kennedys presents itself as a perfectly good soap opera, but a particularly sad example of how low political discourse has fallen.