Controversial miniseries ‘The Kennedys’ is stop and go
By Paige Wiser TV Critic firstname.lastname@example.org March 31, 2011 8:29PM
ICH BIN EIN IMPERSONATOR: Greg Kinnear makes a convincing and conflicted JFK in “The Kennedys,” an eight-hour miniseries beginning April 3 on ReelzChannel. It originally was made for History.
‘THE KENNEDYS’ ★★
7 to 9 tonight, then 7 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 7 to 9 p.m. April 10 on ReelzChannel. To find the channel number, go to www.reelz.com/watch.
Updated: July 2, 2011 12:21AM
It’s hard to believe that Caroline Kennedy would even bother to be offended by this miniseries. But that’s the rumor.
Any hopes that her family’s memory would be treated with taste or respect should have been dashed years ago — at least, say, by the time of “Seinfeld’s” “magic loogie” parody.
It was a full 20 years ago that the miniseries “A Woman Named Jackie” imagined a scene with Jackie confronting Marilyn Monroe on the phone, then hanging up on her. (Marilyn’s response: “What a b----!”)
More recently, Erykah Badu strutted naked through the site of JFK’s assassination for a music video. I mean, Caroline’s got to pick her battles.
But for some reason or another, the History Channel backed away from its first original scripted series — a $25 million project — and released the following statement about “The Kennedys”: “While the film is produced and acted with the highest quality, after viewing the final product in its totality, we have concluded this dramatic interpretation is not a fit for the History brand.”
Among the shows the History Channel considers more appropriate for its brand: “Ice Road Truckers,” “Swamp People” and “Pawn Stars.”
Various alternative outlets including FX, Starz and DirecTV all stepped around the mess. Not even Showtime wanted to pick it up, despite grabbing CBS’ scuttled series “The Reagans” in 2003.
So it’s left to ReelzChannel to benefit from all this delicious controversy.
Greg Kinnear, who stars as JFK, has admitted he’d never heard of the channel before.
The most popular report is that Caroline threatened Disney that she’d refuse to promote the upcoming release of Jackie’s never-heard recordings with Arthur Schlesinger. Disney owns A&E, which owns the History Channel, which blinked.
As with any quality conspiracy theory, we are left with burning questions about “The Kennedys.”
1. Is it offensive?
“I feel good about what we did,” Katie Holmes told Entertainment Weekly, God bless her. She stars as Jackie, and has already suffered slings for her portrayal and accent.
“The Kennedys” focuses on Joe Kennedy and his oldest sons, from the time of his own disappointed presidential hopes to Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Several loud historians were preemptively offended by the miniseries, without having actually seen it. Ted Sorensen, JFK’s legendary speechwriter, went on the record to say, “I know dead people can’t sue ... but their relatives can, and their heirs and estates can, and I think there will be hell to pay if anyone is ever foolish enough to put this banal, repetitive, old-hat list of libels and slanders on the air.”
But Sorensen and the others had gotten their hands on an extremely early draft of the script. Some of the most offensive scenes — Joe Sr. telling Jackie frankly that he knew her Jewish grandfather changed his name; Joe flaunting an affair in front of wife Rose — were watered down or eliminated. In the final version, for instance, JFK restrains himself from calling young love Inga Arvad “Inga Binga.”
“I don’t think it’s too salacious,” Kinnear told CNN. “There’s nothing in this show that you can’t read about in my daughter’s school library.” I doubt that library has any evidence of Joe telling JFK on his wedding day, “Wives don’t expect fidelity,” but the point is well taken.
Marilyn Monroe is here, and Dr. Feelgood’s amphetamine injections, and Joe offering Jackie $1 million not to divorce JFK. It’s all fair game at this point.
But this is a rich story, so producer Joel Surnow had a lot of dramatic moments to choose from. When he chooses to show Jackie hugely pregnant with John-John and smoking a cigarette, I don’t see how he could classify it as anything but a cheap shot. Let’s be real.
The miniseries is coming out at the same time that JFK Jr.’s longtime girlfriend Christina Haag is marketing her memoir about him. Personally, I find an exploitation like that to be more offensive than this miniseries.
And I’ll probably buy the book anyway.
2. Does it have an agenda?
Politically, none that I could discern. You may recognize Surnow’s name as the proudly conservative producer of torture-fest “24.” To confuse the issue, though, he hired liberal Democrat screenwriter Stephen Kronish. And we can thank Surnow for having given us two fictional black presidents before real life did.
Make of that what you will.
Surnow’s main agenda with “The Kennedys” seems to be to entertain, and possibly even to educate. I will admit that I didn’t know as much about the 1946 election in Charlestown, Mass., as I should have.
But overall, I’d say the Kennedys come out fairly well. For all their celebrated flaws (power-mongering, womanizing, voting fraud), the miniseries depicts them as decent people (loving, principled, capable).
3. Is it accurate?
If the Kennedys were really so colorfully crass, then yes. You might want to buckle your seat belts for some runaway dialogue, though. Here’s Joe on Chicago: “There are more Catholics there than there are in Rome. I threw enough money at them to keep them in wafers until 1980.”
If you’re looking for an academic experience, the miniseries is not for you.
4. Is it any good?
No and yes. There’s good (no), and then there’s entertaining (yes). Poor Katie Holmes has been savaged for being in over her head, and it’s true: Doe eyes and a pout only go so far. She says she soaked up historical videos to get Jackie’s accent down, but it feels like it belongs in “The Fighter,” not the White House. A noble effort. I see where Holmes was headed; she just didn’t get there.
But it’s hard to resist “The Kennedys,” and there’s just enough quality to justify it. Greg Kinnear is a far better actor than any pretty boy needs to be, and has managed the best JFK interpretation I’ve seen. At some angles he’s a dead ringer for the president. His JFK is conflicted, sympathetic, convincing.
There’s no quibbling with some of the other casting: The venerable Tom Wilkinson stars as Joe Kennedy Sr., and I really liked Barry Pepper as the earnest RFK.
But be warned. “The Kennedys” is eight hours long, trying to strike an uncomfortable balance between high-minded and trashy. It does not succeed. Enrico Colantoni (“Just Shoot Me”) essentially plays J. Edgar “Hoovah” for camp, which was probably the way to go.
My biggest complaint? I got dizzy from all the time traveling in the script. Suddenly there’ll be the subtitle “6 months earlier,” and some sepia scenes to signal that we’re in the past. I can’t prove it, but I think the lens gets more amber the farther back in time we go. I appreciate the gesture, but we don’t need the color coding.
This seems to be the spring of melodramatic ruling families, with miniseries on “Camelot” (Starz) and “The Borgias” (Showtime), not to mention William and Kate’s royal wedding. Sweeping sagas, all of them. But tragedy after tragedy, decades of retelling later, there’s still no other family that has the magnetic pull on us that the Kennedys do.
Caroline: My sympathies.