‘The Kennedys’: Episode 1 review

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After a fair bit of scheduling problems in America, The Kennedys finally arrive at the BBC. Back in the US, the show was pulled by the History network; apparently because, according to some critics, its version of real-life events wasn’t anybody’s idea of history. Other critics declared that the real reason for History getting cold feet and selling up was a lot more simple: the series just wasn’t very good.

All these different reasons given for channel-hopping bear at least a tenuous resemblance to JFK himself giving different excuses for his legendary bed-hopping. This theme of saying one thing but meaning another runs throughout this opening episode and is appropriate to the story of a family dogged by rumours of double-deals, affairs and tested loyalties, so it would be nice to think that such metaphor is entirely deliberate. Annoyingly, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case.

The dialogue – and, crucially, the direction – is somewhat lacklustre, coming across with all the ferocity and wit of an average daytime soap, circa 1991. Well, the Kennedys always were a dynasty, but here they’re reduced to the level of The Colbys, with a West Wing tribute band piped in on the soundtrack. It doesn’t help that Joel Surnow (creator of the significantly faster-paced 24) feels the need to plaster the opening credits full of events that won’t become relevant until much later – including the fatal day in Dallas, ’63 – as if he doesn’t have enough confidence in the storyline of Episode 1.

The Kennedys won’t exactly do any harm to the career of Katie Holmes, but it won’t give it a boost either, if only because Jackie Kennedy (later Onassis, earlier Bouvier) was such a careful, measured woman. In fact, when we first see her, complete with a somewhat rictus smile, we’re forcibly reminded of none other than Cherie Blair. It’s a difficult part to play, since Jackie would be the closest thing that the US had to their own version of Diana, but Holmes makes a good stab of it, despite the occasional similarity to Mrs Blair. Perhaps Mrs Tom Cruise has a future Michael Sheen type career in impersonating various figures from recent history.

The real draw of the show is Tom Wilkinson – initially unrecognisable under owlish spectacles – as Kennedy Sr. This character could hold a series all by himself and it’s that which highlights the fundamental flaw in The Kennedys.

An improbable but fair comparison is Smallville. No, wait, stick with us for a moment! The ‘young Superman’ series has been canny enough to take an entire decade before we even got a whiff of a cape. That’s ten whole years of seeding plot points, confident that the icon was iconic enough that it could make us wait. JFK is very much the US icon and the game could have been played in much the same way, even if this is a real-life family we’re talking about here. Because The Kennedys – as it name suggests – isn’t just about JFK. A far better way in would have been to have a generation-spanning saga, starting at the turn of the century, through World War 1, following Kennedy Sr. and making us wait before Jack and Joe were even born. This, however, seems to be something of a missed opportunity.

Airs at 9pm on Friday 17th June 2011 on BBC Two.

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