Engrossing TV: Top-notch cast takes us behind famous US presidents

Engrossing TV: Top-notch cast takes us behind famous US presidents


The First Lady

“A woman is like a teabag,” explains Gillian Anderson’s Eleanor Roosevelt. “You’ll never know how strong it is until it’s in hot water.” And if the former first lady of the United States has a look of self-satisfaction as she delivers this pithy maxim, well, she has certainly earned it.

Roosevelt, Betty Ford (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Michelle Obama (Viola Davis) were very different women living in very different times, but common threads quickly emerge in this engrossing new Showtime series.

Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady.Credit:Daniel McFadden/Showtime

Each provided indispensable support to their husbands before and throughout their presidencies. All three made sacrifices to do so. And they achieved meaningful successes of their own, despite the male-dominated political machinery that was determined to relegate them to merely decorative roles.

It seems fitting that Roosevelt is depicted as the grand dame of the three – and that Anderson delivers her lines in measured tones that border on the regal. We first meet her in 1921, playing croquet at her and hubby Franklin’s summer home. Then Franklin (Kiefer Sutherland) is unexpectedly struck by polio at the age of 39 and left paralysed from the waist down. It would be Eleanor that would encourage him to keep pursuing his political ambitions – first to become governor of New York, and then to become president.

Pfeiffer’s Ford has little use for Roosevelt’s teabags, being famously fond of much stronger stuff. We meet her enjoying daytime cocktails alone, dancing around to Harry Nilsson’s Coconut and happily contemplating a quiet life following husband Gerald’s imminent retirement from politics. Then she learns that Gerald (Aaron Eckhart) has been drafted as Richard Nixon’s vice president.

Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford, Viola Davis as Michelle Obama and Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt in The First Lady.Credit:Showtime

Perhaps the most surreal sight early on is that of Davis’ Obama being shown around the White House by outgoing first lady Laura Bush (Kathleen Garrett). Bush is so chummy that you’d half expect her to start pulling cushions off the furniture to make a pillow fort to play in. Obama is in a more sober mood, not least when she discovers reminders of the White House’s own history of slavery.

The ambitious series, directed by Oscar and Emmy winner Susanne Bier (The Night Manager), is especially revealing in the upcoming third episode when it takes us back to the women’s younger years, in which Australian Eliza Scanlen plays the young Eleanor with great poise and aplomb. Well worth checking out.

Ten Percent
Prime Video

This British adaptation of the wildly popular French comedy series Call My Agent! (Netflix) isn’t an instant winner. It has the same ingredients – real actors playing themselves and other actors play their bumbling, dissembling agents – but the tone is uncertain, the chaos lacks kinetics and the sluggish pacing is exacerbated by the fact that the early episodes run an unfathomable 50 minutes.

Helena Bonham Carter in Ten Percent.Credit:Amazon Prime

Still, there’s some fun to be had and Kelly Macdonald, playing herself, is just the sort of delight you’d expect her to be. Her bumbling agent, Dan (Prasanna Puwanarajah), has given Macdonald the impression that she’s getting the lead role in a new superhero franchise, but is busy avoiding her because the producers have decided she’s too old for the part.

Elsewhere, agents Jonathan and Rebecca (Jack Davenport and Lydia Leonard) are tying themselves in knots trying to convince their respective clients, Helena Bonham Carter and Olivia Williams, that they’ve both won the same role. The farce is a thin gruel, but some characters begin to shine through.

The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On

Shanique “Nikki” Brown and Randall Griffin in The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On.Credit:Netflix

Just as in Addicted to Marriage (Foxtel), the idea of old-fashioned matrimony has a surprising grip on many of the rather young Americans in this reality series. The difference here is that those most desperate to get their partners to the altar seem driven by insecurity rather than a desire to live out personal and societal ideals. The show’s format requires couples to split up, strip down to their togs, booze it up in the pool with the others and date around. Expect drama.

Better Call Saul

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Better Call Saul.Credit:Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Well, well, well! Will the do-gooder end up being the Big Bad? Dirtbag lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) has been the more reluctant party as Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) pushes forward with her highly illegal plan to compromise their old boss. In cartel land, of course, the bloodshed has continued unabated. Now in its final season, Better Call Saul remains just as expansively cinematic and claustrophobically tense as ever it was, with creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould still masters of their desert domain.

Old Enough

Old Enough is an adorable TV series.

The cuteness level is off the scale in this adorable reality series in which Japanese children – some of them essentially toddlers– go out on solo errands for their parents. The action begins with little Hiroki (age two years, nine months) setting off on a two-kilometre round trip to a supermarket. Stay tuned to see four-year-old Tata setting out to get a drink for his mother, only to distract himself by trying to catch a dog with a butterfly net.

Hotel Coolgardie

Hotel Coolgardie is an unflinching look at life in a testosterone-fuelled environment.

Finnish backpackers Lina and Steph walk into a maelstrom of testosterone at a Coolgardie pub in this uncomfortable but necessary documentary. Their boss is verbally abusive and demeaning, and they face a relentless tide of sexual advances from heavy-drinking, sex-starved regulars. Director Pete Gleeson is unflinching in the way he captures and displays unthinking male awfulness, as well as the men’s pain and loneliness. Mercifully, there are also some moments of fun before an inevitably sad ending. Essential viewing for men.

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